Ka’harja’s Journey (DLH #1) – Chapter 4


Glif 6th, Grada

Year 10,053 AE

(The Nigelle Farm Ruins; Okatako)

The sky looked like it had been painted with glitter. The smoke had cleared hours ago and the moons were smaller than they had been the night before; the only glow that had grown was the tiny pink moon above the far horizon. The stars had taken advantage of the lack of other lights and were sparkling so brightly it looked like they were dancing on the dark, iridescent blue behind them.

The only thing brighter than the stars were the hot flames that Coborn tended before she scooped a ladle of soup into a pair of ceramic bowls. The bowls were thick, marked with chunky wolven cursive and cultural paintings, and Ka’harja felt their warmth seep into his hands as he took them from the young cook.

‘Nice night,’ he commented.

Coborn nodded nervously and mumbled something —too quiet for Ka’harja to hear— before turning back to the fire.

Clicking his tongue anxiously, Ka’harja looked across the caravan. Stars was sitting on her own, away from the caravaners who sat around the fire. She kissed her baby’s forehead and sighed as she glanced at her mother; who sat on the other side of the fire even further from the crowd. Ka’harja thought of going to comfort Stars while Dena wasn’t able to, but he couldn’t. He had no idea what to say.

Sorry that you had to watch your father-brother get his throat ripped out, Ka’harja thought sarcastically. If it makes you feel any better, one of my mothers got her head bitten off.

He shook his head. It was too awkward— He was too awkward. He’d just make things worse. And besides… he had to find Distro and make sure she was okay.

Ka’harja’s eyes scanned over the caravan but he couldn’t see her, so he stopped Trat as he passed and asked.

‘Uh man, I don’t know,’ Trat shrugged, twitching an ear. ‘I think I saw her walk off somewhere that way.’

‘Thanks,’ Ka’harja’s response was flat; though he hadn’t meant it to be. He’d barely heard the answer over his own worried thoughts and it took him a moment to process which direction Trat had pointed. He weaved through the camp and into the dark shadows cast by the caravans. He could scarcely make out the way down to the river; if it hadn’t been for the moonlight shimmering on the water he would have missed the Distro-shaped silhouette that sat at its shore.

With a deep breath, Ka’harja forced a smile onto his face and made his way to her.

Distro flinched as he sat beside her. She turned her face away and shifted awkwardly, scratching at the scales that had grown over her freckles with an anxious energy. Ka’harja elbowed her hand away from her neck before holding out one of the bowls of soup, which he had figured he was lucky not to have spilt on his way down the hill.

Distro sighed as she took it, staring at it rather than eating it, and Ka’harja had to lean over and kiss her before she realised it was food.

She smiled at him with her uneven jaw and her new teeth clanked together as she tried to pull back her underbite into a more comfortable position. Her uncomfortable smile faded into a frown and she flicked her too-long ears in frustration.

Ka’harja was intrigued by the fluff that now spilt out of his mother’s ears and fell under its own weight like decorative hair extensions. But when he reached out his hand he found that, instead of following his first instinct to playfully tug on his mother’s hair, his palm met her cheek and his thumb wiped away a lone tear that had found its way under her eye.

Her skin barely felt like her own, but he didn’t care. No matter what she looked like she was still his mother, and nothing —not even turning into a dragon— could ever change that.

Ka’harja slid his hand over his mother’s face and rested a finger on her nose. He grinned and pushed against one of her nostrils. ‘I bet I could fit an entire finger in one of these bad boys.’

Distro snorted a laugh and batted his hand away from her snout.

‘Guess what?’ asked Ka’harja as he poked his mother’s nose again. He continued when she met his eye with a tired grin. ‘You’re great.’

Distro’s laugh was louder this time. ‘No, you are!’

‘You’re greater though,’ barely noticing the new deepness to her voice, Ka’harja poked her again. He stopped and looked down at his food as he turned the day over in his mind. ‘You saved my life.’

‘You’re my little boy,’ Distro rasped. ‘What else was I meant to do? Have that bitch take you back to the Heck’ne? I’d rather die than let that happen.’

Ka’harja smiled and drank his soup. It was hard to figure out what he was feeling; the last two days had been pretty hectic. He knew, though, that he was relieved Distro was still alive. He couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to lose her. Whenever he tried to think about what he would have done if she’d lost the fight or died in the fire, his mind shut off and all he could imagine was a bird flying into a window. Maybe he was supposed to be the bird? He wasn’t sure what his brain was doing.

‘I love you, Mum,’ he finally managed. ‘I love you more than I love anything else.’

‘Even more than that sexy werewolf calendar you got on our holiday to Bonark?’

Ka’harja nearly choked. ‘At least twice as much. You didn’t see me pulling that out of the fire, did you?’

Distro’s smile seemed to stick on her now, and even when she looked away it didn’t falter. ‘How’s the soup taste?’

‘As salty as Koko’s attitude,’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘I think you’ll like it. Give it a go.’

Distro lifted her bowl and blew over the soup; mist flowed into the air and it almost looked like she’d exhaled white smoke.

Ka’harja grinned at his mother as she turned back to him.

‘No spoon?’ she joked.

Ka’harja shrugged. ‘Since when were you the sort of loser to eat soup with a spoon?’

Distro laughed. She put the bowl to her mouth and tried to drink, but the ceramics clinked against her teeth and hot soup spilt down her front.

Ka’harja’s shirt ripped in his hurry to get it off. He forced it over his head and wiped the steaming soup off his mother before urging her towards the cold river.

‘It doesn’t hurt at all,’ said Distro as she pulled away from her son. ‘It feels… comfortably warm.’

‘But it was steaming!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. ‘You’d have to be a dragon for it to not… burn…. Right. I get it. Stop laughing.’

Still giggling, though covering her mouth to muffle it, Distro shook her head at her son and gave him a shove. ‘Did you not notice?’ she asked with a grin.

‘Look, it’s been a long day,’ Ka’harja plopped down next to his mother and sighed. He watched as Distro started to scratch at her new scales again. ‘Itchy?’

‘No,’ mumbled Distro. ‘Just different.’

‘You’ll get used to it,’ Ka’harja grinned. ‘Soon, you’ll forget what it was like to not have scales!’

‘Yeah,’ Distro chuckled. Then she frowned and shifted uncomfortably. ‘Can you look at my back for me? I think something’s wrong with it.’

‘I’ll give you a massage if you like,’ Ka’harja told her. ‘But you’re going to have to take your binder off.’

‘I’m pretty sure they’ve disappeared anyway,’ Distro sighed as she turned around. She pulled off her shirt and binder and then groaned. ‘Yep, flatter than ever.’

‘Isn’t that what you wanted?’ Ka’harja asked, feeling awkward. ‘You always complained about them. Shouldn’t losing them be a good thing?’

Distro shrugged. ‘I guess…. But I didn’t want them completely gone. Just smaller.’

‘Damn— DAMN!’

‘What?’ Distro jumped at Ka’harja’s exclamation. ‘What is it?’

‘You nearly got wings!’ Ka’harja told her.

Distro frowned. ‘What do you mean I “nearly” got wings?’

Ka’harja grabbed one of the lumps that were protruding from her back and squeezed it. ‘It looks like you had wings, and then they melted half into your back— Great Star it moved! Do that again!’

Distro pulled away from her son and shook her head. ‘Lose them on the front….’

Slowly, Ka’harja reached up again. He put his hand between Distro’s shoulders and laughed when her she tensed instinctively and her half-wings squeezed his hand tightly.

‘You could hold things with these! That’s ridiculous,’ he laughed. ‘Can I have my hand back now?’

‘I don’t know how to let go,’ said Distro. ‘Maybe….’ She took a deep breath and relaxed, and Ka’harja was able to pull his hand away. ‘Are you alright?’

‘Never better,’ Ka’harja grinned. ‘Keep eating and I’ll give you that massage.’

Distro nodded and picked up her soup. It was difficult, but she managed to get most of the remaining soup into her mouth as Ka’harja rubbed her shoulders. What didn’t get in her mouth ran down her chin and chest, steaming in the cold night air.

Without thinking Ka’harja passed her his already-damp shirt to wipe herself down. As she did, he gave her a shove. ‘So that healer guy’s pretty cute.’

‘Which one?’ Distro questioned.

‘The one with the ponytail and pale skin,’ laughed Ka’harja. ‘Though he’s nowhere near as pale as you. He was hanging around at the back of the group looking nervous?’

‘Oh, I saw him,’ Distro nodded. ‘He was… interesting-looking.’

‘I think he was cute!’

Distro shook her head. ‘You’d think half a lemon was cute if it looked at you the right way.’

Ka’harja shoved his mother again, and she shoved him back. He pushed her again just as a dim glow caught his eye; he turned and saw Sken coming down the hill towards them. He lifted a hand in greeting, and frowned at Distro when she playfully high-fived him.

Sken smiled warmly as she sat next to Ka’harja and her gills gave a small flare. ‘So, ladies, I have a ques—’

‘—BAKU!’ a voice interrupted from the camp; they shouted so loud they cut off Sken. ‘BAKU DO YOUR TRICK!’

‘I HAVE THE BOTTLES! SOMEONE GET THE CHIKCHIK!’

Sken rolled her eyes as Baku shouted back. ‘Foxens at their finest.’

‘Yeah, we’re a bit like that,’ Ka’harja chuckled anxiously. He was tempted to get up and hurry back to camp —he didn’t want to miss the trick— but he glanced at his mother, who gave him a severe look, and instead he turned to Sken. ‘You had a question?’

‘Yes, I hope you don’t think I’m being rude, but I…’ Sken trailed off. She looked away and twitched her gills. ‘I um… don’t mean to be insensitive or anything….’

‘Go on,’ said Distro with a nod.

‘What are you?’ Sken asked. ‘You’re not foxen?’

Ka’harja frowned. ‘Uh, yes she is.’

Sken shook her head. ‘Well, I’ve never seen a foxen like you before.’

‘What are you talking about—’

‘—I think she means the whole turning into a dragon thing, Ka’harja,’ Distro interrupted her son with a sigh.

‘Yeah, that’s it,’ Sken agreed. She pointed back towards the caravan. ‘None of the others have ever done that before, even in our worst fights. I asked them what happened to you but they just kept going on about some “maiden” and started drinking themselves blind.’

‘Maiden?’ Ka’harja asked. He continued when Sken nodded, ‘Have you never heard of Klict before? Maiden Klict? From the story of Gagoo’galornga?’

Sken’s eyes widened and her fins flicked back. ‘What in the name of the three moons is a Gagoo’galornga?

Ka’harja scoffed and turned away. ‘I can’t believe this,’ he mumbled.

‘Get over it, Sweetheart,’ Distro laughed. ‘I don’t think many other cultures talk about him.’

‘I know seces don’t talk about him,’ said Sken. ‘That was supposed to be a name?’

‘Gagoo’galornga and Maiden Klict are from an old story about a nurlak who killed a wolven shapeshifter,’ Distro explained. ‘It’s supposedly about how foxen people started existing.’

Supposedly?’ Sken glanced between Ka’harja and Distro. ‘You don’t think it’s the truth?’

Distro opened her mouth to respond but no words came out. Her dark eyes looked lost for a second before she closed them and shook her head. ‘After today I’m not sure I’m brave enough to call it a lie.’

‘You’re braver than I am,’ Ka’harja shivered. He didn’t think anyone would be able to deny that.

Distro put a hand on her son’s shoulder. ‘Ka’harja, you’re freezing. Go sit by the fire.’

‘Only if you come too,’ said Ka’harja.

Distro sighed before she pushed herself to her feet and held her hand out for Ka’harja. ‘Alright. Let’s get you warm.’

Ka’harja took her hand and they climbed the hill back to the caravan together. Sken followed behind them, her glowing freckles giving just enough light for the trio to make their way safely uphill. As they reached the top the caravan went silent. Distro took a step back and Ka’harja felt her squeeze his hand.

He wanted to comfort her, but before he had the chance there was an explosion of excited shouting from the caravaners.

‘Come sit with us!’ Baku exclaimed, running up and grabbing Distro’s free hand. He pulled her to the fire and sat her down as the rest of the travellers crowded her.

Ka’harja trailed behind Distro, dragged along by his mother’s firm grip. He wasn’t sure if she was going to let go… or if he’d ever get the feeling back in his fingers if she did.

As she sat down the guards gave a cheer; they raised their bottles and shouted with joy and stumbled around like idiots.

Distro gave a sheepish bow and looked away. ‘You don’t have to do that.’

‘But we want to!’ Baku laughed, his cheeks growing even darker than his drunken flush had already made them. ‘You deserve it!’

‘It would be an honour if you’d eat with us,’ Coborn swallowed as she held out another bowl of soup for Distro; unaware that she’d already eaten. ’N-not because you’ve called Klict. That’s amazing too but— But the way you fought today…. You’re so brave.’

‘Thank you,’ said Distro. She took the bowl and Ka’harja screamed internally as he remembered he’d forgotten their other bowls by the river. ‘I don’t feel it, though. I was just protecting my son. I can’t imagine doing any less for him.’

Ka’harja smiled, pushed his thoughts about the bowls to the back of his mind, and kissed his mother on the cheek.

‘What’s it like?’ Koko asked, smiling widely. Her ears pricked up and her tail gave a small wag when Distro turned to her. ‘Did it hurt? Can you hear or see better? Do your scales have feeling in them or are they numb? Do you—’

‘—I’m not sure about anything yet,’ Distro put a hand up to silence Koko. ‘It will take me a while, I think, before I can answer anything like that. But changing… it didn’t hurt at all. It was like a rush of adrenaline as time slowed down for me. Then I was suddenly different. I could fit Kay’oten’s whole head in my mouth and… I felt the urge to just bite down and….’

‘Shake the shit out of her?’ Lif snickered. ‘Because that’s what you did.’

Distro gave a weak smile and nodded.

‘Uh, Distro?’ Trat gave a cough, and after a nervous pause he continued, ‘I’m not an expert or anything… but aren’t you supposed to turn back?’

The excited chatter turned to silence as the caravaners nodded and looked around each other.

Distro shrugged. ‘I don’t know, I guess not.’

There was an awkward quiet as everyone considered Trat’s question.

Ka’harja bit his lip. It was true; the stories about dragon-shifting… the women always turned back into themselves afterwards. What made Distro so different? She was foxen, wasn’t she—

‘You’re part wolven!’ Ka’harja exclaimed, gripping his mother by the shoulders and shaking her. ‘That’s why you’re only half dragon! Because you’re only half foxen! The wolven parts got confused!’

Sken frowned. ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!’

‘I don’t know about that,’ Baku argued. ‘I mean, it’s not like anyone has any better idea of what’s happened to her. I vote it’s the wolven blood in her that’s done it.’

Lif raised his hand. ‘Seconded!’

‘You’re all nuts,’ Felelor grumbled. ‘The Maiden was wolven; don’t you think that her blood would know what to do?’

‘Not to sound, uh… ig-ignorant or an-anything,’ piped up a voice. Ka’harja looked and saw the caravan’s healer fiddling with his long, blonde hair. ‘B-But I— I-I’m not— Entirely sure wh-what’s going o-on. Who’s the M-Maiden?’

‘Coff, I’m going to kill you, and then I’m going to kill myself,’ groaned Koko as she tugged on his ponytail. ‘I knew you grew up in La’Can, but I didn’t realise you’d also lived in a cave.’

‘Can we please not do this?’ Distro groaned. ‘Klict isn’t even real.’

The caravaners let out gasps of shock and Ka’harja put an arm around his mother as she buried her face in her hands. He hated seeing her so stressed but he had no idea what to do to make it better.

‘You don’t believe in the Maiden?’ Baku asked gently.

I don’t know,’ Distro whispered. ‘I don’t know anything anymore.’

Trat scoffed. ‘How can you not believe in her after you—’ he was cut off as Felelor punched his shoulder so hard he stumbled.

Ka’harja was glad he wasn’t at the receiving end of Felelor’s fist.

‘So, you’re half wolven?’ Coborn sat beside Distro and reached to touch her on the shoulder. She pulled back at the last second and swallowed. ‘I thought there was something about your name that didn’t sound right. Distro’s a wolven name isn’t it? From Bonark?’

‘Konde, actually,’ Distro grinned. ‘But I’m from La’Can. I’ve changed my name like, thirty-billion times!’

Everyone stared as Distro laughed— Though it sounded more like a sob to Ka’harja.

‘What was your birth name?’ asked Coborn.

‘Koktansi,’ Distro blushed.

‘Gighi, that’s a really bad name,’ Stars blurted from her place by the caravans. ‘No wonder you changed it!’

‘I also went by Tankiti for a year or two,’ Distro admitted. ‘Yes, it’s a man’s name, I know. I was experimenting.’

Koko let out a laugh. ‘That was my dad’s name.’

Snickers filled the air as the caravaners made jokes, but the mood dropped as Distro began to examine her scale-covered hands.

‘Maybe if I wasn’t half wolven I wouldn’t be so messed up—’

‘—Don’t say that!’ Stars interrupted. ‘You’re not messed up! Don’t maka like a liar!’

Ka’harja watched as Stars pushed past the caravaners and stood over Distro; Annanyn followed closely at her side, carrying Little Demon.

‘Stars I don’t think she means—’

‘—You’re not messed up! You’re the bravest kiita in the world!’ Stars continued, oblivious to everyone’s objections. ‘And you’re smart and kind, as well as kama! Just because you look different doesn’t mean you’re messed up or na kama; especially not when it was you doing something so taa’han that made you be what you are!’

Dena grabbed her daughter’s hands and made to move her away from Distro. She tried to comfort her daughter in Har’py, but obviously failed as Stars pulled away again and frowned.

‘She doesn’t understand how mip she is, Kekik,’ Stars said. ‘You’re good. You’re really good, Distro. The mip kiita.’

Distro stared at Stars for a long moment before looking back down to her hands. ‘Mip kiita, huh?’

She looked even more tired than before, Ka’harja thought. He put an arm around his mother. He wasn’t sure what to say. But he knew he had to say something after Stars. He swallowed, ‘Stars is right. And even if she wasn’t, I’d still love you.’

For a second, Distro smiled. Then she sighed and dropped her hands to her side.

‘You’re good, Kekik Distro,’ said Stars. ‘You’re not messed up and bad and broken. You’re brave and strong and smart.’

Distro raised a hand to silence Stars. ‘You don’t understand. I am messed up,’ she said. ‘I’m the halfway point between two types of not messed up, and nothing can change that now.’

You don’t understand,’ Stars frowned. ‘You think you’re messed up because you’re half one thing, half another?’

Distro looked up, shocked at the aggression in Stars’ voice, and nodded.

‘My baby’s not messed up, and he’s tia’fio, too. Half one thing half another…’ Stars’ tone lost its edge as she looked to the sky and trailed off, distracted by a shooting star.

The entire caravan stopped to watch the star fall. When it faded away into the distance they all seemed to let out a collective breath of relief; they didn’t say it, but Ka’harja knew they’d been worried the falling star would land like the night before.

Even after the star was gone they still stood in silence, glancing anxiously between themselves.

Stars was the first to speak, ‘Klict was part dragon just like you are now, remember?’

Distro nodded. ‘Well, yes, she was but—’

‘—And all foxen people come from parts of Klict, right?’

‘Yes—’

‘—So really, you’ve always been part dragon,’ Stars said simply. ‘And so you haven’t changed on the inside. Just the outside. And the outside doesn’t matter. If the outside mattered, we’d all look exactly the same, and there’d be no kama or niritaka or tia’fio or harpy or foxen or nurlak. We would all just be bal’hiki.’

The caravaners looked as confused as Ka’harja felt. But Distro seemed to understand what the girl was trying to say as she gave her a nod and took a deep breath, sitting up straight and picking up the bowl Coborn had given her before.

‘We would all just be bal’hiki,’ she repeated. Then a smile turned the corners of her eyes, and she looked up at the girl. ‘Well… I’m glad we’re not all the same. You’re right. We’d be boring if we were.’

Everyone watched in silence as she clanked the ceramics against her teeth and spilt soup over herself. After she was done there was an agonising quiet that wasn’t interrupted until Distro burped.

You, give me your drink,’ she grumbled, pushing herself to her feet.

Baku passed her the almost-full bottle and she gulped it down. Then she threw the bottle in a random direction and then turned around.

‘I’m going for a walk,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you all in a few hours. Ka’harja! Sit your arse back down! You’re not coming with me!’

Ka’harja —who was halfway off his seat— plopped back down and sighed. ‘Be safe.’

Distro didn’t acknowledge him as she wandered away.

Ka’harja almost laughed; anyone else would have disappeared into the darkness by now, but her too-pale skin practically glowed in the moonlight and the caravaners watched as she began walking in circles around the field.

The group shifted awkwardly, obviously lost at what to say.

‘Okay, no, but really,’ Sken broke the tension. ‘What’s this story about Klict? I’m as lost as an incarah in a tsunami.’

‘Maiden Klict is the ancestor to all foxen people,’ Koko explained. ‘There’s an old song that goes along with it. I can’t remember the lyrics but it was good.’

‘And who is Gagoo’galenga?’

‘Galornga,’ Koko corrected. ‘He was a nurlak who wanted to be the king of the Heck’ne. He thought if he killed a dragon he’d end up higher rank than the Prophet.’

‘Mala’kala Har’kark,’ Stars chimed in. ‘He banished Gagoo’galornga, but Gagoo’galornga came back with dragon scales and took over all of Heck’ne with the magic they gave him!’

‘I thought this was a foxen story?’ Sken gave an impish grin. ‘Why do you know so much?’

‘Gagoo’galornga is why nurlak can’t be troop leaders,’ Stars blinked. ‘Because Gagoo’galornga was tarnarp and shamed us, and made everything bad for us. Did you know the mup ranking foxen is still mip than the mip ranking nurlak in the Heck’ne? Is that the same here? It doesn’t seem like it’s the same here. Are we equals?’ she looked to Ka’harja. ‘We’re friends, right? That means we’re the same rank? You’re not more mip than me, and I’m not more mup than you?’

Ka’harja nodded. ‘Everyone’s the same rank here.’

‘Except for me,’ Sken laughed, sitting next to Ka’harja and putting her arm around him. ‘I’m the boss. You all have to listen to me…. I’m uh, what did you call it? “Mip”?’

Koko gave her a slap around the head, which only made her laugh more.

‘Alright, I get it,’ Sken threw up her hands. ‘I’m not appreciated for my hard work.’

‘I appreciate you,’ Stars looked hurt. ‘Please don’t think I don’t.’

‘I was joking,’ said Sken. She flicked the barb on her tail at Koko. ‘So Galornga killed a dragon? How did that make foxen people exist?’

Lif and Trat stepped forward and offered their boss the answer:

‘The dragon was actually a shapeshifter,’ Trat explained. ‘Maiden Klict— The lost Canis heir. There’s a lot to it, but the story is basically that she was in her wolven form when Gagoo first found her, and he kept her as a slave until she went crazy and thought he was in love with her.’

Annanyn shook her head. ‘The poor thing.’

‘Yeah,’ Baku agreed. ‘She had the chance to run away, too, but she was so far-gone because of Gagoo’s abuse that she was too scared to leave him. In the end, she was nothing but pieces of shredded corpse in the swamplands.’

‘Galornga found out she was the dragon,’ Koko explained. ‘She shifted for him after a few years of being his prisoner; thinking that if she told Galornga what she was he’d marry her and stop abusing her. Instead he killed her halfway through her shifting back, and then ripped her scales off and left the rest of her to rot in the swamp.’

Lif nodded. ‘The pieces still had shapeshifting magic in them when she died, and they ended up turning into a bunch of men.’

‘M-Men?’ Coff’s voice came from behind Ka’harja, and Ka’harja nearly shouted with fright. ‘Why d-did they turn i-into m-men?

Ka’harja swallowed. ‘That’s just how the story goes.’

‘The foxen men started a war with the Heck’ne,’ Koko continued. ‘And they took back Klict’s scales. They ripped them apart and they turned into a bunch of women.’

‘And that’s why women turn into dragons when they’re angry,’ Stars finished.

There was a moment of silence before Felelor gave a bark-like laugh.

‘That was the worst explanation of the story I’ve ever heard!’ he sniffed and flicked his ears. ‘Sit down, shut up, and let Naranako explain it properly.’

~~~~

Ka’harja wasn’t sure when he’d fallen asleep. He’d woken up sitting, with a blanket thrown around his shoulders and an unopened bottle of White Dragon Wine at his feet. His back was sore from the awkward position he’d been in and he felt his muscles complain every time he bent down to sort through the burnt remains of his house.

He looked at the remaining walls of the building and sighed; it was like losing a friend. He didn’t want to believe it had happened but everywhere he looked he saw the grim reality that used to be his home. It wasn’t long before he felt himself starting to tremble and, trying to keep himself calm, he took a deep breath and tried to think of the positives.

He had friends now, he supposed. People he actually sort of liked. And they were helping him and Distro salvage anything and everything they could.

Ka’harja grumbled and tugged off the cloth from his mouth; he couldn’t breathe with it on and his chest was starting to ache. Coff had been worried about the ash and soot getting into everyone’s lungs, and being a healer he was probably right— But Ka’harja couldn’t bear wearing it any longer.

The stone bathroom had barely been touched by the flames, though the smoke had ruined most of the clothes and towels on the shelves. Ka’harja wondered if they could wash them or if it’d be better to leave them behind.

His question was answered by Distro gathering up an armful of the clothes and making her way to the caravan that stood off to the side. He grabbed an armful of things himself and followed his mother.

The floor of the caravan was covered in things saved from the house. Slightly warped pots and pans were piled against the back of the caravan, while a few singed-but-okay wooden boxes had been pulled out of the ashes.

As he put his armful of clothes down he recognised the enchanted sack. It was completely untouched by the flames, despite the fact it had been in the main room where the worst of the blaze was, and Ka’harja turned to his mother with a questioning look.

‘Fireproof charms were ten percent off,’ she mumbled. ‘And I was already getting the invisibility enchantment put on.’

Ka’harja laughed. He felt guilty about taking the things, but he was happy to know that none of it was damaged. Perhaps he could sneak it back into Coff’s caravan when everyone else was busy.

‘Hey, don’t laugh, I saved twenty gold on that enchantment—’

—WHAT?’ Ka’harja knew that a fireproof charm wasn’t worth fifty gold— And that Distro must have paid at least three times that much for a ten percent saving to be twenty gold. He quickly tried to calculate it in his head and nearly slapped his mother when he figured it out. ‘You paid two hundred gold for a fireproofing enchantment?’

‘No, I paid one hundred and eighty!’ Distro snapped. ‘You’re forgetting that I saved twenty!’

‘Saving twenty gold on a fireproofing charm should mean you get it for free!’ he retorted. ‘You could have gotten a cheaper one somewhere else—’

‘—And have the enchantment wear off after a week? No thank you!’ Distro snapped back. ‘Lifetime guarantees don’t come from cheap enchanters!’

Lifetime guarantees don’t come from cheap enchanters,’ Ka’harja mocked. ‘Great Star, Mum, no wonder we’re always broke!’

‘You mean: no wonder we always have things that work properly!’ Distro put her hands on her hips and shook her head. ‘Imagine if I used cheap ingredients for the potions? They’d not be half as good!’

Ka’harja just laughed and walked back to the ashes of his house.

‘Don’t you walk away from me!’ Distro called out, following her son. She nearly ran into Baku as he came out of the pantry. ‘You! Baku, was it? Tell Ka’harja for me— Tell him that it’s better to pay more for something that works, than pay less and have to replace it later!’

Baku looked stunned. ‘I— Ah— Wha— Huh?’

‘She paid two hundred gold for a fireproof enchantment on a canvas sack,’ Ka’harja explained.

How much?’ Koko’s voice called from behind the burnt wall and she poked her head out of the pantry. ‘Scara in the High-World, who pays that much for an enchantment that’ll wear off in a month’s time?’

Well, I’ve had the enchantment on it for five years, and it hasn’t worn off!’ Distro huffed. ‘And if I was paying ten gold every month for five years, I would have paid… uh… a lot more than two hundred by now!’

Baku shot Koko a look, as if asking her to say something, but Koko just shrugged before retreating back into the room.

‘The stuff in here’s not too bad,’ she called. ‘It’s mostly smoke damage! Everything that’s sealed should be fine!’

‘Let me sort through it all. I know what I’m doing,’ Ka’harja chuckled, though it sounded sadder than he meant it to. It was silly, but he hated the idea of anyone else in the pantry right now. He wanted to go through the remains of his childhood on his own. Take in each herb and its smell, slowly, while sitting in the corner of the burnt-up room, behind the alchemy table where he could pretend he was just relaxing with a bottle of drink while practising his craft.

He knew he couldn’t actually sit and smell each herb, though. Not with the caravaners hanging around. So he settled for checking through the glass which ingredients were salvageable and passing them out to his mother, who took them to the caravan and chucked them in the back with little care.

‘That’s all the ingredients,’ said Ka’harja as he bent under the low door where his mother was anxiously waiting. ‘Are you alright, Mum?’

‘The table,’ she blurted. ‘Is it alright?’

Ka’harja nodded dumbly and Distro let out a tense breath.

‘Oh, praise the Great Star,’ she mumbled. ‘That was a gift from my father.’

‘Everything’s a gift from your father!’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘But, no, it’s fine. We’re going to need a few people to lift it, though.’

Distro glanced around. ‘You!’ she exclaimed when she saw Felelor. ‘Come here!’

Ka’harja put his face in his hand as Felelor stared at his mother and asked, ‘Why?’

‘Don’t talk back to me! Get over here, now!’ Distro snapped in such a motherly tone Felelor jumped and rushed over without further question.

He was quickly joined by Trat and Naranako, who’d heard Distro’s voice from around the wall and instinctively followed. They looked doubly as confused and almost three times as guilty as Felelor, and Ka’harja almost laughed until his mother ordered him out of the way.

‘Goddess in the High-World!’ Koko laughed as she rounded the corner. ‘Did it just get more foxen around here, or was it just me? I haven’t heard a woman snap like that since I told my parents I was moving out!’

Distro laughed, which turned into a cough.

‘Baku! Lif!’ Koko snapped in the same tone Distro had used. She waited a moment as the poor men skidded around the corner before pointing to Distro. ‘Do exactly as she says.’

‘Yes ma’am,’ Lif said obediently, nodding.

When Baku didn’t nod, Koko gave him a shove. ‘I mean it, Baku!’

‘I know,’ Baku smiled, motioning at one of the bruises from their fight the other night. ‘You rarely don’t.’

‘We need to move the alchemy table,’ Distro said simply. ‘I won’t leave without it.’

Of course,’ Felelor sighed. ‘You can’t just get a new one?’

‘My father gave that to me!’ Distro snapped back.

‘Yeah,’ Ka’harja said playfully. ‘Her father gave it to her! Just like he gave her the table and chairs, and just like he gave her the curtains— Oh, and just like he gave her the—’

—Ka’harja!’ Distro snapped. She tried to continue, but her voice crackled so much her next sentence was inaudible. She put her hands on her hips as her son started laughing.

‘Make sure to tell Krarf which caravan you put it in so he can get the stronger cart-pullers to take it,’ said Koko as she turned to leave. ‘Distro? Can I talk to you for a moment?’

‘If she can talk!’ Ka’harja called as the two women walked away.

The men waited for a moment before turning to each other and laughing loudly.

‘Women are terrifying,’ Trat snickered, though there was a hint of anxiety in his tone as he brushed his hair out of his face. Ka’harja couldn’t help but admire it, and as the sun hit it he realised that it wasn’t actually black, but a beautiful dark blue. ‘I hear them shout and I just have flashbacks to the warden in Honey-Oak.’

‘I think it’s attractive,’ Baku admitted, his uneven grin spreading across his face again. ‘What’s more foxen than a woman who knows what she wants? You never found women like that in Canis! I mean, not without them being an actual bitch with no boundaries.’

The boys laughed, though Ka’harja just shuffled back nervously. ‘I’ll leave you to it?’ he mumbled. ‘I don’t think I’d be much help, I’d just throw you all off-balance.’

‘Alright, tall boy,’ Felelor clicked his fingers and motioned into the pantry. The rest of the boys responded and followed.

Ka’harja was left standing awkwardly in the open, feeling out of place in what used to be his home. He wasn’t used to so many people, and he wasn’t sure how to interact with any of them. His mother had the luck of being a woman— She could bond over that with Koko…. But Ka’harja wasn’t interested in the normal banter most foxen men enjoyed. He wasn’t interested in girls or wrestling; he liked alchemy and plants and being alone and… and he liked his mother’s sense of humour.

‘Are— Are you al-alright?’ a meek voice asked from beside Ka’harja, and he jumped around to see Coff. ‘You l-look like you’re, uh….’

Ka’harja sighed as Coff trailed off and scored the ground with his oddly-shaped boot. Ka’harja was trying to figure out what was strange about it when Coff cleared his throat, and his eyes snapped back to Coff’s face. ‘It’s… been a long day.’

‘I, uh— I im-imagine it h-has.’

The two shuffled awkwardly, unsure of how to continue.

Ka’harja took a deep breath and motioned for Coff to follow him as he started walking around the ashy remains. ‘So you’re a healer? Do you know much about alchemy?’

‘Um, a l-little,’ Coff wouldn’t meet Ka’harja’s eye. ‘Mostly things l-like cottonflower tea and… other… medicines.’

‘Cottonflower tea was the first potion I ever learnt!’ Ka’harja grinned, trying to diffuse the tension. ‘I still remember when Mum told me I was going to make it. I was disappointed because I thought it wasn’t a real potion but… she was right. It’s the most important potion I’ve ever learnt.’

Coff smiled back, though weakly. ‘Cotton— Cottonflower t-tea was the first medicine I-I l-learnt, too. I remember my mentor t-telling me the number one rule for the tea was to never—’

‘—Charge nurlak for it!’ Ka’harja exclaimed, his ears twitching with excitement. ‘Yeah, that’s what Mum said, too! I remember she taught me a little rhyme to help me with the recipe. Boil the water, it’s a breeze! Then into squares we cut the leaves….

He trailed off when he saw his mother standing alone in the middle of what used to be the main room. Even from the kitchen door-frame, he could see the pale white lines down her cheeks where her tears had washed away the ash.

‘Mum?’ he managed. ‘Are you okay?’

Distro didn’t turn as Ka’harja put an arm around her, though she closed her eyes and sniffed.

Ka’harja could feel his mother trembling as he looked to where she’d been staring. He nearly cried himself when he saw it: the Eight Star tapestry, completely untouched by the smoke and flames. Shining as brightly as it had the morning before when they’d shared breakfast with Stars and Dena.

We’re not alone,’ Distro’s rasp was so quiet Ka’harja nearly missed it. ‘Welten hasn’t forsaken us.

He wasn’t sure what to say as Coff stepped beside his mother and put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

The Eight Star deities weren’t real, were they? Gods didn’t exist… did they?

Ka’harja shook his head, trying to clear it. He’d never had reason to believe in them before. Nothing had ever hinted that the deities were real, much less watching over them. But… he could barely deny it now, could he? His mother had turned into a dragon— She’d called Klict. Could that mean the other gods existed, too? And what about Animon? Star Seers? The Okaras— If one god existed, who could say that any of the other religions weren’t true, too?

He realised that this was what his mother was feeling and more, and gave her shoulder a squeeze. She sniffed again, and put her face in her hands as Ka’harja glanced about the burnt-down house. He saw the caravaners watching them from a distance; sympathetic looks came from all directions as Distro’s began to sob.

‘Do you think the gods might actually… exist?’ he finally managed to ask. ‘I don’t know whether I believe it or not but if you think they can, then maybe….’

‘I never thought—’ she cut off with another sob. ‘I never thought they could before. I never wanted to believe but— But Klict is real. I can feel her with me— She’s with me, Ka’harja! I can feel her and hear her and she’s telling me things that I don’t understand!’ she put her hands over her ears and let out a cry. ‘I don’t understand! I don’t understand what she wants me to do!’

Ka’harja dropped to his knees and pulled his mother into his chest. He rocked her gently, side to side, and whispered to comfort her as she buried her face in his chest.

Coff shuffled nervously before joining them on the ground. ‘Are y-you hearing v-voices?’

Distro shook her head as Coff began to look her over. ‘It’s not a voice it’s…. I don’t know what it is.’

‘You’re— You’re in a l-lot of shock,’ Coff said seriously. Ka’harja was surprised that the nervous man he’d spoken to a moment before could take such a serious tone. ‘You need to— To rest. Deep breaths. In… out. In… and out.’

Distro did as he said. Her chest heaved awkwardly at first but after a moment it evened out and she calmed down.

Coff put a hand on her chest when her rasp didn’t clear and frowned. ‘You s-sound l-like you m-might have an— An infection.’

‘I’ve always sounded like this!’ Distro snapped. Her voice cracked in protest of her volume and she started coughing. When she stopped her gaze softened and she sighed. ‘The cough is new.’

Coff opened his mouth to respond, looking anxious again, but was cut short as Stars approached.

‘Gighi! It’s not burnt at all!’ she exclaimed. ‘It doesn’t even have smoke on it! It’s so beautiful. Do you think it’s safe because of the deities that teach magic? Do you think they protected it for you because it was a gift from Ka’harja?’

Ka’harja looked up at Stars, who was looking back and forth between Distro and the tapestry. He squeezed his mother’s hand as she took a deep breath.

‘Yes. I think they did. I… think they’re watching over us.’

Ka’harja didn’t mean to sigh. But he was tired and confused. He wasn’t sure what he believed anymore. ‘We’ll have to roll it up and pack it away, that’s going to be difficult.’

‘I can do it!’ Stars exclaimed. ‘Not to be a bahi, but Baku showed me how to roll up bedrolls and said I can roll things really mip because I have four arms! It’s something I’m mip at! I can do it! Not a bakti at all!’

Ka’harja let himself smile as Stars hurried over to the tapestry and carefully unhooked it from the wall.

‘I’ll be careful with it!’ she promised as she stumbled towards a clean patch of grass away from the house. Everyone watched as she lay the tapestry out and carefully began to roll it up. She took her time, unrolling it again whenever she made a mistake and trying to get it perfect. Her mouth was moving the whole time and Ka’harja wondered if she thought they could still hear her; though when he strained his ears he discovered she was singing to herself, and the song was so silly Ka’harja let out a laugh and had to cover his mouth with a hand.

Distro laughed too— But it turned into another coughing fit that made her grip her healing wound and sob.

‘D-Did it reopen?’ Coff gasped, pulling her shirt up. Then he sighed with relief. ‘Thank the G-Goddess. Distro, uh… you need t-to come to my— My caravan. I need to um, make s-sure you’re alright. You shouldn’t be— Be around so m-much ash with that w-wound. I d-d-d— Don’t want it getting con-conta— Contam— Contaminated.’

For once, Distro didn’t argue. She let the boys help her to her feet and leant on Coff as he led her away. She got a few meters away from her son before she turned back.

‘Ka’harja?’

‘Yeah, Mum?’ Ka’harja’s voice broke as he responded, and he swallowed to try and hide it. ‘What’s up?’

‘How’d you like to move out of Okatako?’ she asked, gently. ‘A new start somewhere we’ve never been before?’

He wasn’t sure. A different country… was that a good idea?

‘Think about it for me?’ asked Distro with a weak smile.

‘I will,’ Ka’harja promised. He sat dumbly in the dust as his mother left with the healer. He wasn’t sure what to do besides stare into the distance. A different country….

‘You okay?’ before Ka’harja could respond, Felelor offered him his hand. ‘Do you need anything?’

‘I’ll be fine,’ Ka’harja sighed as Felelor helped him stand. He wandered away and continued kicking through the ash, deliberately avoiding eye contact with anyone who approached him.

Several times the caravaners tried to start conversation, but they eventually gave up after too many of Ka’harja’s half-hearted responses. They settled for flicking his leg with their tails whenever they passed. Ka’harja was grateful that they understood, but even with everyone around him showing support, he couldn’t help but feel frustrated… and guilty. It wasn’t fair! All he’d done was try and help Stars and look what had happened! And the caravaners… they were so willing to help him… what if they found out that he’d stolen from them? What would they do then?

He tried not to think about it and kicked up a cloud of ash.

Something hard and a little bit heavy hit his foot and he bent down to find it. He dug a small knife out of the ashes and felt himself start to laugh.

‘Guess I won’t need that shovel after all,’ he mumbled. He pulled the blade out of its sheath and held it up to the light. As he did he saw Trat watching him, confused. ‘I uh… made a joke with my mum the night before last because I’d lost this. I said I’d need a shovel to find it….’

He trailed off, staring at the sun’s reflection on the black glass.

‘You alright?’ Trat asked.

‘Yeah,’ Ka’harja inhaled sharply and sheathed the blade again. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Do you need anything?’

Ka’harja shrugged. There wasn’t much anyone could offer him right now that would make him feel any better.

Trat sighed and looked to the wall the tapestry had hung on. ‘So… your tapestry was a little lacking. You only believe in the Original Nine?’

‘Yeah,’ Ka’harja gave a weak grin. ‘Mum thinks that Full Disciples are unnecessarily specific.’

‘Don’t tell Annanyn that!’ Trat laughed. ‘She’s an aura sensor.’

‘Maybe Annanyn can convince Mum that the other magics exist, while she’s got an open mind!’ he was only half-joking. He shuffled awkwardly in the quiet that followed, not meaning to look away but not able to stop himself.

‘I’ll leave you be.’

‘Thanks,’ Ka’harja sighed and turned to continue his search, nearly colliding with Stars as he did. He wasn’t sure how long she’d been standing behind him and almost scolded her for not announcing herself; he didn’t, though, and forced a smile onto his face. ‘How did you go with the tapestry?’

‘Really well! I’m the best at rolling things up!’ Stars bragged, shifting her heavy-looking load of books. ‘Koko said that’s your word for mip! Best! I’m the best! And when you see how good I did, you’ll agree I’m the mip and the best!’

‘Sure,’ Ka’harja shrugged. ‘Hey. Don’t bother with packing up the books, they’re ruined.’

‘Ruined?’ Stars twitched her ears curiously. ‘What do you mean they’re ruined?’

‘You can’t read them.’

‘Of course I can’t!’ Stars scoffed. ‘I can’t read anything!

‘No, I mean they’re smoke-damaged,’ Ka’harja grabbed one of the books off her pile and flicked through it. ‘See? They’re broken. Nobody would be able to read these.’

‘Oh, I didn’t realise they were broken,’ Stars sighed, her ears pressing back with her disappointment. ‘I’m sorry I’m not very good at helping. I’m kimpt. I promise I’m kimpt.’

‘I know you’re trying, and you’re doing good,’ Ka’harja put a hand on her shoulder and flicked his tail against her leg. ‘You’ve been a big help.’

He wasn’t sure if that was actually true. He almost felt like it was her fault this had happened— That if he hadn’t offered to help her none of this would have happened and he’d still be trying to wake his mother for breakfast…. Probably tipping some fel cider on her face or clipping clothes pegs into her hair or seeing how high a stack of gold coins he could make on her forehead.

But it… isn’t Stars’ fault, Ka’harja tried to shake the thought. She wasn’t the one who did this. It was Kay’oten…. Kay’oten is to blame.

‘I keep doing things wrong,’ said Stars. Her sad sigh brought Ka’harja back from his thoughts. ‘I’m just picking up the wrong things and getting in the way. I’m kizza mup, huh? Kami mip.’

‘I don’t think you’re the worst,’ Ka’harja said with a shrug. He wanted to help lift her spirits, but he wasn’t sure if he could. Not with the way he was feeling. He just wanted to be left alone, to be miserable without having to worry about anyone besides himself. But… He couldn’t just leave her. She was suffering, too. ‘And you’re not in my way,’ he lied. ‘Why don’t you stay with me? I know what’s useful, and you have four arms to carry everything with!’

Stars’ face broke into a wide smile. ‘I could carry twice as much as you! That would be useful!’

Ka’harja flicked an ear and motioned for Stars to follow him. They picked through the ash for a while, collecting the few remains they could find. At first Stars’ constant chatter annoyed Ka’harja, but after a while he realised it was the only thing keeping him distracted from how sad he was, and he started to encourage her.

‘There were a lot of these in your house before the fire,’ Stars picked up a filthy glass bottle. ‘Baku said they’re too dangerous to keep because the heat breaks them… but this one looks okay.’

‘The heat makes them crack on the inside, and they can shatter when you try and clean them, even if they look alright at first. It’s not worth the effort.’

Stars didn’t seem phased and dropped the bottle to the ground. As she did, something behind Ka’harja caught her eye and she waved. ‘Koko!’

Ka’harja turned just in time to have something thrust into his arms.

‘I think this is yours?’

It was a book— No, a calendar— No… the calendar. The werewolf calendar he’d gotten in Bonark. Ka’harja felt faint; had Koko looked through it? She probably did, to know it was his.

‘Oh, stop panicking, I’ve got six brothers, I’ve seen my share of porn stashes,’ Koko rolled her eyes.

Ka’harja let out an anxious laugh as he looked through the half-burnt drawings of muscular werewolf men. ‘Thank the Eight it was the bottom half that got burnt, hey?’

Stars peered over his shoulder. ‘What was on the bottom half?’

Ka’harja fumbled, unsure how to respond, but Koko nudged Stars and grinned.

‘What’s on the bottom half of men, Stars?’ she asked with a snicker.

‘Oh,’ Stars carefully took the calendar from Ka’harja and began to flick through the pages. ‘I would have thought you’d have liked the bottom half to have to have not been broken. I know I would have liked to see it.’

Ka’harja pushed the thought to the back of his mind as Stars continued looking through the months. She paused on the last page.

‘This one isn’t damaged at all!’ she held the calendar up for Ka’harja, then turned it back and looked closely. ‘Gighi. He’s really big. Kosson! He would be mip kaka, don’t you think?’

Ka’harja laughed nervously and eyed Koko, who was snickering into her hand. ‘You, uh…. You can keep it if you like.’

‘Thanks!’ Stars exclaimed, her face lighting up with excitement. ‘I’ve never owned anything like this before! It’s mip! I’m going to put it with everything else of mine! I have more things now, did I tell you? All farfah! Baku gave me a book and is going to teach me how to read!’

Koko playfully punched Ka’harja in the hip as Stars hurried away.

‘What a fantastic gift, hey?’

‘Shut up!’ Ka’harja felt his cheeks burn with embarrassment. He sighed when Koko laughed. ‘She might as well have it, I guess. It would have only been left behind if she didn’t want it. I don’t know why she’s interested, though.’

‘It’s not like she hasn’t had sex before!’ Koko put her hands on her hips. ‘She has a baby. She’s probably going to enjoy that calendar a lot, you know!’

‘I’m going to ignore you, now,’ said Ka’harja as he turned away. ‘Nothing personal, I just don’t want to hear you speak ever again.’

Koko just laughed and walked away.

A few moments of fantastic silence passed, then Stars grabbed Ka’harja from behind and pulled him into a hug.

‘I have to tell you about Fabecutt!’ she exclaimed.

‘Who?’

‘Little Demon’s yalfit!’ she grinned. ‘He’s not as muscular as the man in that picture, but he was still really strong and kama! He could lift me right off the ground while we were having kaka! It was amazing! I’d never had kaka standing up before I met him— Well, I’d had kaka leaning against rocks and things, but that doesn’t really count as standing up, does it? Fabecutt was really gentle, too! It was nice. Oh, once he—’

‘—Hey, hey now!’ Ka’harja forced himself to laugh; it was very fake, but Stars didn’t seem to notice as he cut her off. ‘You’re making me jealous here. Let’s talk about something else.’

Stars went quiet for a moment, her ears twitching and her face in a frown as she tried to think.

Relieved, Ka’harja let out a breath. The last thing he wanted to talk about was her sex life…. Hm. Maybe they could go back to talking about—

‘He was staying around here, you know!’ Stars blurted. ‘We saw each other for titani full moons! Did you ever see him?’

Ka’harja thought back, but he couldn’t remember meeting any dassens in the past two or three years, let alone the last seven months. He wasn’t even sure he’d ever actually met a dassen before. No; was sure that he’d only seen them in books. ‘Not that I recall.’

‘Oh, that’s sad, you would have liked him! He was—’

‘—Ka’harja!’ Sken’s voice called over Stars, and Ka’harja turned around and waved to the caravan owner. ‘We’ve been here all morning and I don’t think there’s much left. We should get moving!’

‘Yeah, we’ve gotten everything that was important!’ he replied.

‘You heard him!’ Sken shouted, even louder than when she’d been talking to Ka’harja. ‘Let’s go!’

Ka’harja stood dumbly as the people around him began to trek back to the caravans. He was just deciding what to do when felt Stars lean on him and start to tremble. He hadn’t realised how tired she looked until now; the bags under her eyes and the shallowness in her breathing… they made her look half dead. And as he pet her on the back and let her bury her face into his shoulder, he wondered if he’d looked the same, all those years ago….

‘I miss him,’ she sighed. ‘He made me feel whole. I only feel like half of myself now. Like I’m kizza real.’

‘Hey, it’ll be alright,’ said Ka’harja. ‘It will. Things can only get better, now.’

‘I want to see Annanyn,’ Stars told him. ‘She has my Little Demon.’

‘She’s right there,’ Ka’harja pointed. ‘Do you want me to walk you there?’

Stars shook her head. ‘I’ll be okay. Thank you for listening to me, Ka’harja. You’re a mip friend.’

‘No worries,’ Ka’harja gave an anxious grin. He wasn’t sure if that were true; if she’d heard what he’d been thinking about her she’d probably hate him. ‘I’ll be with my mum if you need me.’

Stars didn’t seem to hear him as she wandered away, which was fine with him. He made his way to the healer’s caravan and quickly patted himself down to get rid of as much ash as he could before going in.

The first thing that hit him was the unmistakable smell of antibiotics and infected blood.

Ka’harja nearly panicked, until he saw Coborn rubbing a salve her arm.

At first she didn’t see Ka’harja and continued treating herself; then she saw him staring and jumped.

‘I— I messed up while cooking sea urchins for Sken,’ she explained, quickly pushing a bloody cloth off the table into a nearby bin. ‘Got myself…. I thought I washed it properly but….’

‘You got an abscess?’ Ka’harja shuddered. ‘Gross. You should put garlic on it.’

‘Why i-in the name of all— All— All the gods— Why— Wou—Would she ever do— Do that!’ Coff’s voice exclaimed from the corner of the room. ‘GARLIC?’

‘My mum makes garlic salves all the time,’ Ka’harja defended. ‘You mix alcohol and garlic and smear it on for about ten minutes, then wash it off with some—’

‘—Honey salves a-are b-better,’ Coff interrupted. ‘Garlic bur-burns the sk-skin. And honey s-salves a-are safe for children, t-too, without the— The alcohol and time l-limits.’

Ka’harja shrugged. ‘You can’t lick it off, though.’

‘What— Why would-ould you even— What?’ Coff sputtered. He frowned when Ka’harja laughed, but then sighed and pointed to a jar next to Coborn. ‘Can you p-pass me th-that? I-I’m treating y-your mother.’

Ka’harja picked up the jar as Coborn got up to leave, and made his way over to the bed his mother lay on.

‘She’s asleep?’ Ka’harja asked, pricking up his ears to listen to his mother’s snore. ‘Is she alright?’

‘I d-don’t know,’ Coff admitted, taking the jar and carefully applying its contents to Distro’s wound. ‘She w-was running around yest-yesterday, which is— Is good, but I want to k-kee-keep an e-eye on her and make— Make sure she doesn’t g-get w-worse.’

Ka’harja sat on the bed beside Coff and ran his fingers through his mother’s greasy hair. He wasn’t sure how to feel. Losing his house hurt enough; he couldn’t bear the thought of losing his mother, too.

‘U-Use… this.’

Ka’harja looked up from his mother to find Coff holding a handkerchief out to him. At first he wondered why— Then he felt the tears rolling down his cheeks and quickly accepted the rag, which turned black with soot as she pushed it into his face and let out a sob.

Awkwardly, Coff put a hand on Ka’harja’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. ‘I— I know it’s h-hard, but… uh… it’s going to— To be o-okay. I think. Do you—’

Ka’harja shrugged him off and sniffed back his tears. ‘I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I’m sorry, but everyone keeps trying to talk about it and it’s just making me feel worse.’

‘Oh— Okay,’ Coff fiddled with the hem of his shirt for a moment, then turned and began rearranging a shelf of preserved herbs and thick books.

For a while Ka’harja sobbed into the soot-covered cloth while Coff ignored him in the most awkward manner possible. When Ka’harja finally managed to stop crying, Coff turned back to him and held up a bottle.

‘Do— Do you th-think your m-mother would drink this if we— If we woke her? There’s… not much left, b-but it should help.’

Ka’harja shrugged. ‘We can try, but she’s stubborn and usually refuses to use anything she hasn’t made herself.’

‘I-I know,’ Coff sighed. ‘I had to w-wait until she was asleep before I could clean her w-wound. I don’t know how w-we can possibly get her to dri-drink any of this—’

‘—Hold on,’ Ka’harja exclaimed, jumping to his feet. ‘I’ll go peel the label off some beer!’

Coff laughed. ‘You th-think th-that will work?’

‘Why not? It’s worked before!’


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