S. Kornfeld

Stephanie Kornfeld Unlimited

All works by Stephanie Kornfeld

A Bed-time Story

Chapter 1

Grieg folded his wings behind him. Although humanoid, he was typical of his race: 2 legs, 2 arms, 2 wings. His skin was fair ochre and his hair and feathers were a taupe brown. He wore a doublet and jewels in grey, silver and blue. He looked out from the top of the tower in the light of the moon, Lo. It was a week away from being full. In 2 weeks the carrier moon, Esa would be full. The time was ripe for spawning a new heir.

He wondered if Queen Zio of Carama was enough of an ally to share in this process. Or if perhaps Princess Wilu of Horza might be a better pick. The Princess was young and pure and unpledged. She was appealing, but the Queen had a history of multiple births, and while it complicated the idea of succession to some extent, dependable fertility was a valuable thing — as were all of the allies that Carama had from her various broods.

Then there was the question of the carrier. Grieg had inherited the three his father Kreg had kept. Ino had in fact, carried him. Ela had carried his brother Kan and Osa had carried his “sisters” — twins, Monu and Ji and another carrier, Ofu.

Monu was at court in Carama and Ji was in Horza. It might make sense to talk to them and see if they had any insight as to the breeding status of Zio and Wilu. He didn't know the whereabouts of Ofu. He didn't care. Although she was his sister, she was still, just a carrier.

Grieg extended his wings. Up, high on his back, they spread out like enormous webbed hands, downy with feathery hairs. They caught a breeze and lifted him off of the castle roof. He flew over the stables and down the valley a ways. Even from high up he could smell the trees and plants and dirt thawing from their winter slumber. There were no buds yet on the trees. He knew the seasons of his territory in the Kingdom of Gratz on the planet of Korb. The buds came with the carrier moon and spring would bloom — if all went well.

As Grieg soared he flew down near the orchards. That would be where the first buds would show: The tree branches, still bare from winter tipped with red as if manicured for a party would start to show. Now it was too dark to see any reddish coloring. The shapes of the branches didn't reveal much more. Other parts of this land would show spring in other ways. — But since Grieg's wealth grew from the fruits of the land that is what mattered most to him. As Grieg flew back to the castle he flew past a window where his sister, Ofu was starting to bud.

Budding is the term for a carrier's coming of age. Where her brother had wings, Ofu had arms, much like yours and mine. Three vertebrae down, a different kind of shouldering system grew. From each side of this area the soft thin arms and hands of a child were becoming longer and fusing into cartilage. The fusing of the fingers was what gave the process the name, “budding”. Little hands were turning into small shovels because part of a carrier's reproductive cycle requires that she bury herself.

It was bad enough to see her body transform before her eyes — but the itching was unbearable. What's even worse was that if she scratched he elbow joint to the point where she would have bled just two days ago, there was no blood. Instead her fingernails got sanded down.

And then more itching! — Up and down those changing limbs. This was a job for Mom. “Mom!”

Ofu knocked on Osa's bed chamber door. He mother opened it and simply said “Budding itches. Come in, I have some medicine for that.” There was lotion for the limbs and pills for the odd kind of pain and then tea for the girl. Then there was “the talk”.

“What helps the most is the tattoo. Tomorrow the Inker will come and tattoo you with our family crest and you'll see that the inks help the itching.”

It settled in for a moment and then Ofu realized that the tattoo would make her property of her family. None of her siblings had tattoos. They were not carriers. Only she would be branded as such. She would never possess the power to choose her own mate. Her role would be to bear young for the next generation.

Osa continued: “You're every bit as royal as Kan and Grieg and Ji and Monu. Your role is different, that's all.”

“If I'm as royal as Grieg and Kan, how come they choose their mates and I get beheaded if I leave the castle?”

“Because they have no other power”.

“Garshit! They have all of the power! They get to govern, judge, learn self-defense, form armies attend parties, create alliances, build roads and bridges form policy and be educated. — What power don't they have?

“Shh… we have the power to determine what is born.”

“This life isn't worth living.” Ofu had stomped out of the Osa's drawing room and into her own suite.

She cried and scratched her itching limbs. She washed her face and tried to sleep. She couldn't stop thinking about what she was and how she didn't like it. — The worst of it was the context. She was a slave. She would be tattooed tomorrow and her life course set. She had to leave. There wasn't much there she could use to disguise herself. She stripped the pillows of their brown casing and sewed a robe to disguise herself as a peasant just to get beyond the castle walls.

That night she walked miles just to find some privacy. The castle town was fairly lively at night. The walk was a great distraction from the itching of her changing limbs. — But after a long while, the itching turned into an impulse. She wanted to dig. She needed to find a place to root, but found the trails beyond the castle confusing — and surprisingly well trafficked. Finally she came to a meadow and just sat for a while. Her new limbs of cartilage went to work, digging earth. So, this was freedom. She didn't realize it would be so scary.

Esa was a crescent still as the first light of dawn began. Although it warmed Ofu's heart to see it, she had to keep digging. The sun would be up soon and she needed the cover of darkness to protect her from being seen. An escaped carrier could be put to death. Although she had no tattoo identifying her yet, she was still in a vulnerable position. She had had no choice. It was run or die, far and fast. — But in order to run, she needed nourishment from the earth. She had been told that as a child, but this was the first time she experienced it first hand. As she dug, her root spines itched impatiently. The grit of the soil was the one thing that satisfied the itch. She knew she wanted to be buried deeper, but her body didn't cooperate. In that moment, Ofu's breath caught in her throat and he eyes rolled up. Her root spines shot into the soil as she passed out. It wasn't deep enough for her to draw full nourishment, but it would have to do

Chapter 2

In the early morning Goldang and Farant flew and wheeled through the air with an exuberance that only lads on the edge of manhood could have. Traveling straight from point to point would never do for youths of such high spirits; no, they had to challenge one another with loops and spirals. First they climbed as high as they dared and then dove to within only a few meters of the ground before pulling up against several times gravity!

On one such pass Goldang saw something. He climbed back toward Farant and called out. “There is someone on the ground! — Dead!”

Landing, they approached the shallow pit. Farant twitched his wings as he looked down. “Not dead. Her spines are pulsing she just didn't dig all the way in for some reason.”

“Look how thin she is!” said Goldang. “It looks like she waited too long. Do you suppose she's a runaway?”

“She must be. Why else would she root outside a castle wall? And she's nude.”

“You think she divested so her clan couldn't be identified?”

“Could you think of another reason?”

“She's free then. We can take her and she will be ours!”

“What? Morkat will never allow it! We have not passed manhood yet!”

Goldang wrinkled his brow. “I have an idea! Let's bury her properly so she will live and grow strong. We can disguise the spot! Our manhood rite is in two weeks! She will sleep for most of that. Maybe all if luck is with us… then we can claim her! We will be ahead of our whole crèche!”

By noon they had buried Ofu to her upper arms and covered her head with leaves and branches to shield her from the sun, wind and prying eyes. Her color had improved immediately when she was properly planted.

Away the two lads flew knowing that they had a carrier for their offspring.

Wilu drifted high over the landscape, high enough that she could see almost all of her known world. Directly below was the castle of Horz and the surrounding villages and the soldier's aerie. Half a march from the castle wall was the camp of the centaur clan that her father had given permission to stay for three passings of Lo if they would help with the planting. The fields and farms stretched for several marches to the forest edge and she could see from up here that her homeland was carved from that very forest, an island of the hand and workmanship of her countrymen imbedded in the wild. Just before the horizon to the west was the realm of castle Carama. She saw it only as a thin line of lighter green separated from the deep green of the trees. She would only have to fly a bit higher to be able to see the realm of Talan and then the sea, but her entourage would never allow it.

Ji, who was second wife to Morkat was the sister of Grieg their king. Wilu had met Grieg. He was quite handsome and well aware of it. He sent a letter by flyer suggesting that they would make a fine mating. The idea! The Talan were hunters and farmers who tended their own fields as if they were slaves. Not a one of them was battle trained. Their great teachers knew nothing of the warrior life, but rather spent their days with their heads buried in books. No, they could trade women to our realm, but no Horza woman could take the seed of one of their men. There would be no dignity in it. A Horza princess could only mate with a warrior.

Dalag, the head of her entourage called up to her “Princess, you fly too high!” She could barely hear him and pretended not to for the time being. The wings of a woman were not as strong or swift as those of a man, but they were wider and buoyant with tiny bladders so she could fly much higher and drift without effort for hours, while a man must alight after a much shorter time. The colored wings were a woman's glory and Wilu's were more beautiful than most, striped in orange and black and spotted along the edge in deep ultramarine.

Finally she started to descend until she was drifting beside Dalag who was flapping furiously to maintain his position. “Do you grow fatigued, Captain Dalag?” she asked knowing full well it was a fact.

Dalag ignored the inquiry. “You are expected for the mid day meal princess, we must return.”

Surrounded by the six soldiers, Wilu spiraled downward to her father's castle.

Queen Zio of Carama was in the east garden with Monu, the gardener and three of her other ladies when a centaur announced the arrival of Grieg. Rather than dismissing any of them, she suggested that the gardener plant what the other three ladies liked and that Monu accompany her to greet her brother in the throne room. Zio liked Monu and felt that there would be nothing to hide from her; the more transparency between the families the greater the trust; the greater the trust, the stronger the alliance.

They arrived through the stage door, and once seated a guard let Grieg in. She was happy to see Grieg. He had grown into a handsome fellow. She remembered him when he was young. She was twelve years his senior and never denied attraction when she felt it — even if it was a half a generation away or more. She could tell that it was mutual.

“Welcome, my friend!” She extended her hands from her lap on the throne and Grieg clasped them and bowed his head. Monu stood by the grand chair.

“I'm honored by your welcome” replied Grieg.

“What brings you to my castle today?”

Grieg paused. He was aware that the Queen was always busy and appreciate keeping business short. But he didn't want to seem rude.

“I come for a visit to my sister and a brief discussion about how we might strengthen our alliance.”

Zio laughed, caught his eye and tilted her head. Her silver hair flashed against her crimson gown. “The moons are ready for the making of heirs, are they not?”

“Indeed they are.”

“The answer is yes. Come back in a week at least three hours before moonrise. In the mean time, I will discuss this with my carriers — and yours to find the best one — should we have several young, we may choose more.

The Queen stood up and escorted Grieg and Monu through the grand entry of the throne room into the nearby courtyard. “Here I will leave you to visit your sister. — I will send a servant shortly to refresh you. “That was easy” said Grieg. “Between your friendship and my good looks, we make a pretty good team.

“That was some of it” Monu continued, “But more of it is Zio's ambition and wisdom. I told you she would be receptive.”

“Now little sister, what about you?” He looked at Monu objectively. She was very pretty in a warm way. She shared her brother's light ochre skin and her hair was the color of tea. He eyes were gold like her carrier's while his were blue like their father's.

I'm going to sit this one out. Zio has a mate in mind, but she wants him to pass his manhood rite. — And let him wait. She says young is good, but they need to grow up before they become worthy of fatherhood. Besides, I have a lot of studying to do.”

“How is that going?”

“Very well. I'm enjoying learning languages and biology especially.”

“I'm not surprised. You always seemed to have a nice level of curiosity.”

A Servant brought in platters of tea and treats. Like most Tree Folk, she had an extra pair of arms with hands and the things she carried included a covered bowl with steaming towels for Grieg to use to refresh himself. She issued an invitation to dinner, breakfast and a room Grieg could stay in for the night. Grieg accepted and Fia, the servant offered to come back in after he and his sister completed their meal.

Chapter 3

At home, Osa cried. — Not constantly; just a jag when the grief would hit her like a wave. More often she'd sniffle and pretend it was her allergies acting up. No one had asked about Ofu yet. That was the one advantage to being a carrier — no one really cared. She could lie. Better to lie and let Ofu come back in her own time, than to notify the guards and have her searched out and brought back only to be beheaded. She just hoped that Ofu would have the good sense to come back within 2 weeks. It was time that she could carry her first. — but then, of course that was why she ran.

Osa agreed with everything that Ofu had said when they had argued that night. She felt guilty for handling the whole conversation badly. Why did it have to go this way? Why as a mother did she have to inform her daughter that she would always be enslaved by tradition? The same kind of conversation had gone almost as badly between her mother and herself. Why choose to carry a carrier? At least a male or a female would have some level of freedom and status. Osa knew the answer. The role of the carrier is as or more important than the role of the other sexes in the survival of the species. — And to be unwilling to carry one like oneself is like saying to oneself that one's life does not matter. But Ofu's temperament was different than Osa's or Osa's carrier Omi. Ofu's temperament was pushed out of bounds by her intellect. With the minimum of education, Ofu had a greater power of perception and reasoning than Osa had ever seen — of any child in the nursery. Ofu also had a sense of pride and fairness that neither she nor the other carriers wanted to destroy. Ofu carried hope.

Osa's only hope was to plant herself and see if she could access the connection of roots. Since she herself had been tattooed immediately after her first planting, she knew that her own voice might be faint. — But she at least had to try.

The following morning after Grieg left, Zio made some time to talk with Monu out in the garden, but without the gardener and other ladies of the court. Typical of Zio's style, Monu knew that this meeting would seem comfortable and casual but a subject of vital and important business.

“Tell me about the Carriers in your House” Zio commanded. “Grieg was carried by Ino, Ela carried Kan and Osa carried myself, Ji and Ofu.” “So Ofu would be young.”

“Yes.”

“Tell me about Ofu.”

“She's three years younger than me. She's kind and smart/”

“What's her temperament like?” asked the queen.

“What do you mean?”

“Is she one who initiates things? — Or does she expect others to act? — Is she inherently sad or happy or withdrawn? Is she volatile or easy-going?”

Monu had to think hard about this. She wasn't raised close to Ofu, and had to use her small experience with Ofu to answer Zio's questions.

“She'll initiate things. She's sad when there's something to be sad about and happy when there's something to be happy about. She can be withdrawn, but interacts easily when it's appropriate. She's not explosive and she's pretty easy-going.”

“I would like to meet her. Can this be arranged?”

“Sure” was Monu's automatic reply.

“She's GONE!?! — What do you mean she's GONE?!” Monu could not contain her outrage.

Osa had been wakened from her rooting by the arrival of Monu and Queen Zio — together. The fact that she was still a bit groggy and had just connected with Ofu helped her retain her composure. “Do you remember how when you came of age, you left? — This was like that. She may yet come home.”

“Ofu's a carrier — SHE'S NOT ALLOWED TO LEAVE HOME” .

“She's also your sister — and a royal, and she has the same intelligence and determination as you and your late father had.”

“But she was not tattooed!” added Monu.

“Why is she not tattooed?” asked Zio.

“Grieg would not discuss Ofu's situation after Kreg died.” Osa replied.

Normally the tattoo is a rite of passage just prior to a carrier's first planting to associate the carrier with at least one house. Sometimes it was used to build alliances. The inks and their colors didn't just represent the connections, but they included toxins that would limit the carrier's ability to carry for other genetic mixes. An un-tattooed carrier could carry anyone's zygote. An un-tattooed carrier was vulnerable.

Zio nodded knowingly, “Monu, — calm down. We still have an alliance. We just won't use Ofu for this mating.”

“We still need to find her” Monu responded.

“I would be honored to carry your brood, my Queen ” Osa offered.

“That would be appreciated. Time is of the essence.”

It was a little awkward for Monu watching her own carrier and her mentor carry on like young courtiers. Matters could be much worse. Zio could have chosen to not just break off their alliance, but have declared war on their Kingdom under the circumstance of Ofu's disappearance.

Now there would be a search for Ofu and a subterfuge to shield most of the household from the knowledge that Ofu had run away. It would be assumed that Ofu had joined Zio, Osa and herself at the Caraman court. Monu knew that Zio always did things for a purpose. Zio may not even know her own reasons at the time she took certain actions, but fluidity was part of what Zio had been teaching Monu over the past two years. Seldom did circumstances allow for ideas and plans to be followed neatly.

This was a big shift in the way Monu had seen any household run. The law was that Carriers who ran away was beheading. With Zio's interference, if Ofu was found, the beheading would not happen. Not only was Monu the daughter of Kreg, and carried by Osa, she and her siblings were the offspring of their mother, Deena.

Deena had been Queen of the northern reaches of Havnor. Tempered by cold and desert conditions, Deena had a reputation for being ruthless and religious. — Which is what had made her so appealing to Kreg. A woman of her ilk would create tough and obedient children — he thought. — But somehow the warmer weather and the local abundance had made them softer than he had expected.

Deena had died from a disease that infected her ovaries. Her illness took her after many battles of combat and spirit. Her faith had served her well. She had been obedient in her role as Wife to Kreg and continued to rule her own realm as well.

Had a carrier left Deena's castle, the males would be notified, the hounds would be on the trail and the carrier would be found and beheaded in public. This was the law and the law had come from The Book.

Zio didn't use The Book. Monu noticed it from the very beginning of her stay there. It was something that was very different from her home of origin and her mentor's home. She had never discussed it with Zio. Part of diplomacy was accepting the ways of others and Monu knew herself to be in a diplomatic position.

But Monu's mind was grinding away with ambivalence. She was now part of a conspiracy through no fault of her own. Her cooperation was assumed. She didn't like the idea of her carrier sister being beheaded. — But she had to wonder if she were queen, what would she do under the circumstances?

She knew Zio was right: Grieg had no interest in carriers. He did not value them except as property. If property could be restored to the owner, no worse for the wear, then there would be no need to damage it.

But this was a carrier. If she had been raped, or worse — allowed herself to be used for pleasure, she could spread disease or taint the family line.

But then again, Ofu had no tattoo to link her to this household. If property goes missing and there's no indication of who owns it, it could be anyone's. If a gar has no brand and no owner and roams freely, it is feral. Ofu could be feral. Ofu could be free.

Chapter 4

Ofu's memories of being planted were still not clear. — But the being in the ground was an experience of more sustenance than she had previously experienced. Not only did she gain physical nourishment, but through her roots she connected to others. — She even found her mother, Osa and found she could communicate with her. “I'm so glad you're alive. Please — please come home”.

“I need to do what I'm doing, “ Ofu replied.

Osa's response was a surge of love and then a boost of awareness — and then nothing.

All Carriers are connected through the ground: roots connecting to other roots, trees and plants akin to them, allowing their roots to be used to transmit ideas. From this point she could perceive that tattooed carriers had very weak connections and carriers that had not been tattooed were the strongest. She could perceive a large group of them to the southwest of where she was just beyond Horza. She could perceive that there was water between them, and also that she would be welcome there.

A week passed and Esa got brighter. Osa came to stay with Zio in her castle. Zio pored over the family trees. Her mating with Grieg had been as unpleasant as she had expected. He was as selfish as a lover as he was in all other things. He was not violent or mean or abusive, he simply expected to be serviced by the Queen. While Zio did what she could to expedite the experience, she found it difficult to sleep so she came to her study to take a closer look at how her seed and his might mingle.

Unlike Grieg, she recognized the importance of the carriers. They contributed the final part of the genetic material and they had all of the influence of a child's development. They also had some of the power over the gender of the child. Of the carriers in Grieg's household, two out of the four were most desirable. Ofu and Osa both came from the line of Ovo. Ovo was the carrier of Zio's own grandmother and the carrier of Kan's grandmother as well. This was a very strong line. While Kan did not dominate his domain, Zio knew him as an intelligent, just and cordial administrator. She might have chosen him, but Grieg's seniority gave her a diplomatic advantage that she wanted now. If she had chosen Kan, there would be speculation that Grieg had offended her somehow. Zio could weather a lot of offense before she would respond in a way that would lend to speculation.

Ofu would add a bit more of Kreg's line. Kreg had been known for his humor and his hunting ability. Three generations back, a period of debauchery had allowed the breeding of a male royal, a whore carrier named Iva and then a female royal, Lina from the house of Merth. The Merths had since been usurped by the current rulers of Horz. Lina had been the last of their line. Zio thought it might be nice to give the Merths another descendant. Diversity in a bloodline made for a stronger brood. Less diversity had risks, but concentrated power. Zio saw the advantages of both.

On the edge of waking from her planting on the morning of the full Esa moon phase Ofu felt rhythms pounding through the ground. Hoof beats. — Four legged beasts — three of them. Her connection with the soil gave her an ability to feel what traveled upon it. She was glad she was covered with brush. She knew she hadn't done that herself and wondered how it happened. She looked around and noticed her clothes nearby also covered with brush.

Centaurs. Three of them: two female and a young male, siblings.

The largest was a female bay. She ran in the lead and then stopped, whirled and waited for the others in the clearing. The second female was a skewbald pinto and the male was a chestnut with white socks.

”I thought you'd never catch up” bragged the bay.

“Oh please, you know we only let you lead so that if we go someplace new, you're the first to get into trouble” snapped the pinto. She elbowed her brother, “Right, Squirt?”

“Right, Flow”

“Squirt and Flow — cute. What am I? Tinkle?”

“I was thinking Flush.” Flow bantered.

“I like it!” Squirt announced.

“I like Tinkle better” said the bay.

“How about Pee?” added Squirt — then he did just that — right on the slope that shielded Ofu. Centaur urine soaked the bottom of her clothes. When Squirt was done, he gestured toward the road. Beat you home!” The three took off as quickly as they had come.

Ofu waited. She was aware that she was fairly close to the road. She needed to make sure the influx of centaurs was a temporary affair.

Chapter 5

Morkat walked up and down the line of candidates. “So,” he began in the ancient formula, “These are the poor lot who have come to be initiated before our people and our gods! These are who have come to become men of Horza!”

The boys stood in a line at attention, their wings folded neatly, each holding a wooden pike at a perfect ninety degrees. They pointed their eyes directly forward and angled their ears the same way. Morkat stopped before one boy and snarled in his face. “Do you deserve manhood? Do you even deserve life, you…uncarried?”

The boy, Tengart by name, spoke up quickly. He didn't have to think, they all knew the words. “No, mighty priest, voice of the gods, I do not!”

“And who does?” Inquired Morkat.

“No one!”

Morkat stepped back and addressed the entire line casting his eyes back and forth. “And why not?”

The line of boys answered back in chorus. “Life is given by the gods, but manhood must be earned. Children are born, men are created through work, through training, through discipline.

Morkat nodded. “Today, some among you will die.” In truth, the death of an initiate was rare in the contests. The last time it had happened was before Morkat was born. “If those who do so please the gods in their dying, they shall be honored as heroes. If they cower or snivel, they shall be buried as fertilizer in the carrier yard and no one shall ever again bear their name!”

Goldang stood as rigid as a tree, determined not to make even the smallest error. He knew the cost. Next to him stood the tark who had failed initiation the year before and thereby lost his name, which had been Dornak, until such a time as he completed it. If an initiate fails thrice, his wings are cut off and he will live his life as a slave.

Morkat continued to speak. “Will all agree that I hold power over you, that I am master and the only way by which you may speak to the gods? Who would dare to step out of that like of pathetic boys and challenge me?”

Farant stepped forward. “I will!” He said. This to was part of the planned ceremony. Earlier the initiates had drawn lots as to who would be the one to “step out of line”. All of them wanted a chance to strike Morkat after his endless drilling for the last year, but Farant won the chance. “I shall knock you aside and address the gods myself!”

Morkat immediately swung his pike at Farant's face. Farant didn't flinch, only ducked and made sure his wings were tightly tucked. Only a slight injury to the wings could render a man flightless, sometimes permanently. He reached out with the pike and attempted to knock Morkat's legs from beneath him, but the priest had danced out of the way and was now about to smash his down on Farant's head. He dodged aside but was caught in the stomach by the butt end of Morkat's pike and in short order was on his back with Morkat's knee on his chest. This of course was the typical result. Someone in every generation thought they could get a hit in on Morkat, but no one ever had.

Over the rest of the day the initiates did battle with pikes and other weapons, performed rituals and various feats of strength culminating in a mock battle on the wing above the aerie. At the end all came away a man including Dornak with his name restored.

Farant and Goldang were tired but thrilled, especially Goldang who had an eye on Giula, the most desirable girl from the crèche behind him. He could now approach her with a carrier in hand, none of the others could do that, except of course, Farant. That might be a problem.

Twisting her neck she broke away more of the casing and even more when she bent her arms. Beneath the earth she pulled her roots back into her spines and set to work freeing herself. She was at full strength and it took her only part of the morning before she stood upon two feet with her spines folded behind her like skeletal wings.

She wasn't sure where she was. She had been heading toward Horza in hopes of appealing to her sister Ji for protection, but her memories of travel were a fog of exhaustion and the pressing need to root. Now that she was thinking clearly, she realized that she might not have even maintained her direction.

She looked up at the sun and back in the direction she thought she had come from. Yes, Horza should be only a day's walk, two at the most and her bearing ought to still be right.

As she looked upward she saw movement, a creature in the sky. It was a man and he was coming in her direction. He had already seen her, so she didn't attempt to hide. He might be the one who planted her.

It was Farant rushing to the spot where he and Goldang had planted the lost carrier. He could now claim her and it would have the full weight of law. He knew that Goldang would be tied up for half the day with family matters, but he was free to go where he pleased and intended to fully take advantage of that freedom.

Flying over the spot he saw that he was too late to capture her as she uprooted as he had hoped, for she was already active. He would need to be assertive from the very first lest she run into the bush. Her nudity was an advantage to him because she had no clan sigils that he was obliged to respect. She could not prove that she was anything but a feral. He simply had to make his claim before she could announce an allegiance.

He alighted close before her stepped forward and slapped a hand over her mouth while wrapping the other arm around her and keeping her from struggling. “You are the property of T'aal Farant of the clan Tyl of the Horza nation! You shall carry for me and no other.”

Ofu broke his grasp and stepped back. “Garshit I am!” she snapped. “I have not come this far only to become property again!”

Farant was taken aback. Like so many young folk, he was certain that the law was all that counted and that none would dare disrespect it. “I have claimed you under the law! Not only under the law of Horza, but the law of all our folk! You are obliged to obey me!”

Ofu let out a terrible scream and lunged forward. Farant raised his pike too late for it to be an effective defense so unexpected was the carrier's attack. Who could defy the law in this way? It was an outrage!

Ofu brushed aside the pike with one spine and drove the other into Farant's chest piercing one of his hearts. Pulling it out, the gaping wound fountained blood. “Outlaw!” he cried weakly as he attempted to spread his wings and lift off, but his strength was already gone. He tumbled facedown and his life bled away into the soil.

“The laws of nature and the will to liberty are greater than the law of Horza!” She declared.

Before this second, Ofu had never committed an act of violence in her life. Now she stood covered in the blood of her legal owner. “No,” she thought, “my would-be rapist.” She had now irrevocably committed herself to freedom. She had to clean off the blood that connected her to the crime if she expected to live long. A stream babbled noisily nearby and she dashed off into the brush to find it. Then she would somehow have to clothe herself and get far away from here. Luckily her victim's pants were not terribly soiled. She turned them inside-out so that the reverse side of the weave would not ally her with his house color of green. At the stream, she washed out her old cloak and her own boots. Good: gray pants, brown cloak — good servant's colors. Her assailant had a purse and a knife. He had lots of money. She took the money and knife and left the bag; the pants had pockets that would suffice.

Now she had to disguise what she was. Her spines were motile enough to carry something. As long as she took the road, and might be encountered by others, she would be best off being a different species. A carrier flyer would be sought once Farant's body was discovered. He didn't deserve the time it would take to bury him, so she moved him to the edge of the meadow where the centaur had pissed.

Chapter 6

As a lover, Osa was wonderful. Zio's ovipositor was still tingling the next day. Not only was this a wonderful feeling, but it also meant that she had another fertile egg. She felt grand and gorgeous and loved. Zio knew that Osa had extra motivation: find her daughter and sparing her life. They both knew that Zio had the power to execute the search and weigh the courts. Zio had no objection to being used as long as the parties were honest about what they were doing. Osa had addressed her concern about Ofu and asked if Zio could help. Zio thought about all of the alliances and resources at her fingertips and her own love for her own offspring and knew not just that she could help, but that she wanted to.

She looked at Osa sleeping. She was a lovely carrier; chestnut hair, golden skin, large breasts, golden eyes. — -Eyes that look deep and understand without words. Osa was petite, but had nice proportions. Her jaw line was tight and round and gave her an eternally youthful appearance. Her spines were nicely placed right above her hips and were tucked in neatly as she slept.

Zio could imagine staying close to Osa for a long time. She enjoyed her company and found her to be well informed and interesting. Zio and Osa were peers. Only a year separated them in age, with Osa being the elder of the two. Where Zio had power, Osa had protection of a great house. — But this protection was at the whim of the males. Zio could remove her.

In fact, Zio had an idea for making time to allow for a search for Ofu. She could offer shelter to Osa and Ofu during Osa's pregnancy planting. The story would be that Ofu would come along to accompany and assist with the planting and the raising of the young. This was not uncommon and Grieg would very likely agree to it. The less he could concern himself with the care of the carriers, the better for him. This lax oversight allowed just the opportunity needed for Zio to search for Ofu and for her to enjoy Osa's company further. Osa would have to plant herself within the week. Zio had just the space at her castle; private, with sun, shade and water with a comfortable residence beside.

Zio kissed Osa on that precious space on the neck just between the ear and the clavicle and Osa's golden eyes opened and she smiled. Her arms wrapped around Zio and their loving began again.

Ofu walked on the road toward the castle city. It was the most direct way and she just had to trust that her cloak would cover her enough not to reveal that she was a carrier. She'd still like to see Ji of she could, and if she couldn't, she wanted better clothes and supplies. At least she had money. She wouldn't have to stay for long, but a hot meal, a tub with hot water and a place to sleep would be welcome. In dire circumstances, she could root herself again, but that would be contrary to her goal of moving forward.

Clouds gathered in the sky. It would rain pretty soon and it would be best to be situated before it started. After a couple of hours of walking, with others passing her by, coming and going, she was feeling fairly relieved that there had been no confrontations. The sun started to go down and that enhanced her feeling of relief. It's always easier to hide in shadows than in light.

She made it through the gate pretending to be a part of a group of servants from a large household. She carried the bundle of her old clothes and looked somewhat useful. Keeping her eyes cast down, avoiding contact with either the guard or the leader of the group; the guard let them all through at once.

Once inside the gate, she followed the group of servants for a short while and then intuitively followed a street to her right. The smell of the air was thick with scents of the city: people, animals, and hanging above, the smell of rain.

After a couple more short jaunts the downpour caught her beneath a canopy. The sign in the window said “Guilmon the Inker”. A light glowed in the shop as an old man's face peered out at her. He came and opened the door. As the bell rang, he said kindly, “come in for tea”.

Ofu accepted the invitation. She wasn't in much of a position to refuse. She trusted that her own roots had helped her find her way here. It was a new knowledge for her, but it was now the best of what she had at her disposal.

Guilmon had a chair ready at a table. Tea was a common thing for him to offer his guests. Of course, being an inker meant that he welcomed all who needed tattoos. — Be they nobles or carriers, or others who wanted designs on their bodies for one reason or another.

“I know what you are, carrier” he said as he poured tea.

Ofu's mouth was parched — just a little more than before she had entered.

“Don't worry. I have no interest in turning you in,” he added as he sipped his scorching tea.

“Why not?”

“I know more about carriers than my customers do.”

“And what is it that you know?”

“— That carriers are the same as the rest of us and deserve the same chances to live freely as everyone else.”

Ofu looked into his eyes as they twinkled with a smile. Her heart settled in her chest with a sense of peace that she hadn't felt since she left home. She took a sip of tea. A tear dripped from her eye.

“I think you may be in need of some help.” Ofu nodded. Guilmon looked at her clothes. Inside-out pants. The colors in the weave looked slightly familiar. — The duke's colors with the wrong emphasis. The top was just a brown blanket twisted about. The bundle that she carried had some fine stitch work in it — but stank of mildew and something worse. “Come with me, he added and beckoned her to follow.

The shop was attached to a house through a breezeway that led to a courtyard. Beyond the breezeway was a kitchen, cozy with the smell of fresh bread and a stew hanging over a fire. An old woman — a carrier, stirred the pot.

“Eya — we have company” announced Guilmon. “Eya is the love of my life.”

“Ofu” introduced herself without hesitation — surprising herself that she did so.

“Ahh — Ofu! — Daughter of Osa, Kreg and Deena!” — She reached out her ruddy hands and grabbed Ofu's in them with warmth and affection.

“How did you know who I am?”

“Part of our work here is keeping track of such things. — And I knew Osa when we were both younger.” Eya's green eyes looked into Ofu's gold eyes. “You are much like your carrier, same gold eyes. The important thing is that you found your way here.”

“What is here exactly?”

“The Inker's for one, and for another, a refuge — for now.”

Guilmon put a large bucket of water by the fire. “You can wash as soon as that's warm.”

Stew, wine and bread were served as three sat at a table. It was all delicious and warmed Ofu to the core. After the bowls were cleaned, Guilmon went back into the shop.

“I'll get some clothes for you,” Eya disappeared up a creaky stair. She came back with a bundle of clean clothes, a washrag, a comb and a towel.

Ofu surrendered the clothes she was wearing and her bundle and Eya threw them all in the fire. She flashed Ofu a knowing look. Such smells do not occur without regrettable incidents.

Ofu was scrubbed clean; hair washed and combed and finally dressed in a simple shift with a robe over and fur slippers for her feet.

Goldang circled above the meadow where he and Farant had planted the carrier. Nothing of note was obvious from above — although he had not seen Farant for a few days he wasn't worried. Most young men celebrate over days and weeks once they reach manhood. He landed near the spot he remembered and saw where they had left the carrier disturbed. Goldang looked around and found Farant's dead body. It was was a great surprise, but not a great sorrow. He had come prepared to kill him himself knowing that he had intended to claim the carrier for himself.

He examined the wound and saw that it had not been made by another warrior's pike but by a carrier's spine. Killed by a carrier! Farant did not live long as a man — and died as less than a boy.

The authorities would learn of this. If the carrier was caught, Goldang could reap the reward by having the carrier be his slave.

[To be continued…]