Lain has a tragic life, that’s just the way it is, but I know a lot of people were hoping that in the telling of his early years there would be some sources of happiness. Did he ever truly know any others of his kind? Did he ever have a relationship? I’ve tried to answer those questions, but in doing so I revealed a few other problems. For one, if you really pay attention to the things we learn about him in the second half of The Book of Deacon, he isn’t even named Lain until he reaches Entwell, which left me with the issue of what to call him until then. It hasn’t entirely been solved, but this scene introduces a nickname that he will come to be called for a section of the tale. I don’t want to give away too much of the book before it is published, particularly since it might change drastically before release, but I thought this section might give you an idea of where the middle third of the story is headed.
A bit of background. As a result of an act that will haunt him for the rest of his days, Lain has been liberated from the plantation that has been his home and prison for his whole life. He’s barely an adult at this point, and is having difficulty surviving in the cold mountains of Tressor. After catching a pair of rabbits, they were stolen by a creature who was revealed to be another malthrope nursing an injured leg and having a similar amount of difficulty surviving. He offers to share his food and help her survive and recover if she helps him learn what he needs to know to live and thrive in the woods.
Not a word was exchanged between them until the last speck of meat was picked from the bones. With hunger as ravenous as theirs, it did not take the two malthropes long to extract every morsel down to the marrow in the bones. The female finished first, licking her chops as she tossed the last bone aside after she was certain it was stripped bare. Satisfied, she casually clawed at the icy earth until she’d dug a shallow hole, then gathered the bones and dropped them inside. He watched as she did so, imitating her behavior until his own bones had been buried, the earth brushed smooth over them.
Having a meal in one’s stomach, even a meager meal, has a way of pacifying one’s temper and easing tension. The raw hostility wasn’t entirely gone from the female’s body language, but it was eased considerably. She edged a bit closer to the fire, stretching her favored leg out with a few hisses of pain.
“You say you can help me with my leg. What is it you can do?” she asked.
“Let me look at it,” he said, standing and pacing around the fire.
She eyed him with suspicion, tensing her muscles as he approached in case she had to flee suddenly. He knelt beside the limb and tugged at the multiple layers of leggings.
“Eh!” she interjected, slapping his hands away. “Do not touch my clothes. If you need to see something you cannot, you will ask me, and I will decide if you see it.”
She eased the cuffs of the layers of robes and trousers up a calculated amount, revealing terrible swelling beginning just above her ankle. He reached for it, but again she slapped his hand away.
“What did I say to you? There is no touching!”
“I need to feel the bone.”
“This you will not do. It is hurting bad enough without your touching.”
“Fine. But if we don’t do something, it is definitely going to break. And soon. Your leg doesn’t even look straight.”
“And this is what you can do? Tell me it will break? This does not help me!”
“We need to make a splint. I’ll find some straight branches. You stay here. Try not to move it.”
He moved swiftly into the forest to gather two of the strongest, straightest lengths of wood he could find. It was a good feeling, a familiar feeling, to be doing something for someone else. In the back of his mind he had been fearing the day he would find food and shelter enough to make life less than a struggle. The endless task of scrounging up enough food to eat, of finding a place away from the wind to sleep, and of keeping a vigilant eye open for bounty hunters, kept his mind from other things. It kept him from thinking about what he had done, and who he had lost. The forest might well have given him food and shelter too quickly to keep the darkness from settling in his thoughts. Now, though, he had a task, and he threw himself into it gratefully. Stout but smooth branches were selected, along with a few oddly shaped crooks and forks that had useful curves. When he was satisfied, he returned to find his would-be teacher sitting just beside the pack of supplies he’d stolen. A hasty attempt had been made to hide the fact that she had clearly been rummaging through it.
“What were you doing?” he asked, the gathered wood held awkwardly under his arm.
She opened her mouth, the telltale hesitation of a forthcoming lie dangling in the air for a moment. When no suitable reply formed itself, she instead pointed to the branches. “Why is it that you need bits of wood?”
“I told you, I need to make a splint. … Do you know what a splint is?”
“No I do not know what this is!” she snapped. “Why would I know what this is?”
“Your leg is hurt. It is weak. A splint is a way to keep it straight and strong.”
He knelt beside the pack to retrieve his rope. While he was at it he carefully tallied the other contents. The meager remnants of the supplies he’d stolen were clearly stirred up by a haphazard search, but it would seem that nothing had been taken. Besides the rope, there was an empty leather water flask, a poorly kept knife that he had been meaning to sharpen, and the remains of a pair of boots that he’d gnawed much of the leather from when food was especially scarce. He looked to the female. She looked back with a subtle look of defiance, as though daring him to accuse her of something.
“Straighten your leg. Hold it like it would be if you were standing,” he instructed, measuring two of the longest, flattest pieces branches against the afflicted limb.
“What are you going to do?”
“I am going to tie these pieces of wood tight against your leg, to keep it straight, and–”
“You will not do this thing!” she cried, shoving him away. “I am having difficulty to walk on it, and you want to tie wood to it?”
“I need to do it to help you.”
“How do I know this? Maybe you do it to hurt me, to keep me slow.”
“Trust me, I know how to help your leg.”
“Trust you? You do not have a tail. A malthrope with no tail most times is a dead malthrope. It is not a malthrope who makes good choices. You cannot keep your tail, but you want me to trust you with my leg? No. Do something else,” she said firmly, arms crossed.
He sighed and furrowed his brow in thought. “I suppose I can make a crutch.”
“A crutch…” she said vaguely, her eyes dancing slightly in the act of recollection. They brightened when she found the word. “For under my arm, yes? For helping me to walk?”
“Do this instead.”
“It won’t help very much.”
“Do this instead,” she repeated with a hard look.
Not in the mood to argue, he selected one of the longer bits of wood and instructed her to lay back, marking where the thin, carefully selected branch reached her underarm. A line scratched with his claw in the appropriate place, he found a rock to prop the branch against.
“I don’t understand why you haven’t done this for yourself,” he said, lining up the mark with the rock. “It is simple to do.”
“No. Hunting? Tracking? These things are simple to do.”
“Not if you never had a chance to practice them.”
“Then this is my answer as well.”
“That is fair, I suppose.” He stood and thrust his heel at the raised end of the branch. Two more such blows were enough to roughly break the green wood near the line. He dug out the dull knife and began scratching at the damaged fibers. “You speak very strangely. Do you not speak much?”
“I do not speak Tressor language much. Tressor is not my home. Not for long. A year. Two, maybe. I speak Crich.”
“I don’t know that language. Where did you come from?”
“I come from Vulcrest. No. When I was born it was Vulcrest. It is not Vulcrest now. Now it is part of… It is with… What is it, the name for when many places become one place? For war?”
“Empire? You come from the Nameless Empire?” he said, stopping in the middle of a complex bit of lashing to stare distrustfully at her.
“Empire? It is not the word I was thinking, but it is close enough. This is a problem?”
“We are at war with the Nameless Empire!”
“We are not at war with anyone. The men are at war. Always they make war. It is nothing for a malthrope to worry about.”
He stared at her for a bit longer. It had never once occurred to him that something that was a worry for the other slaves might not have been a worry for him.
She continued. “Men draw lines on the ground, kill you for crossing them. Malthropes, we do not do this.”
He went back to work. “Why did you come here?”
“The war is why. Part of why. Things are bad for us, for malthropes, in the north places, the empire. Men hunt us. When there was war, I thought, ‘South there are men who are enemies of these men. Maybe they do not hunt the malthropes.’ Stupid thoughts. They hunt us here. Everywhere.”
“Well then why did you stay?”
“If it is the same here as there, why go back? Only it is not the same here as there. Here it is warmer. In the Great Forest, there is food, much more food, and much easier to find than in the empire. So I stay. What about you? Why do you know nothing?”
“I know plenty of things.”
“Nothing you need to know.”
“Where I come from, I needed to know things like this,” he said, shaking the now completed crutch. It was a simple thing, just one of the lighter of the branches he’d retrieved with a curved piece of wood lashed across the top to give the arm a place to rest. He’d done his best to carve away any jagged edges. “And it would seem that you need it, too. Here, give me your hand.”
She looked distrustfully at the offered hand, but grasped it after a moment and allowed herself to be hauled up, relying entirely on her one healthy leg. He tucked the crutch under her arm. In a series of short, ginger attempts, she put her weight on it. When she released his hand, she eyed her own leg critically, as though consulting it for an opinion.
“It helps. Some,” she allowed. She tipped her head to the side, reassessing him. “What is your name?”
The corners of his mouth drooped. “I… I didn’t…”
“It is not hard,” she said with a shake of her head. She placed a hand on her chest. “I am Sorrel. You are…?”
“I… I don’t think I really have a name.”
“Did no one talk to you ever?”
“I’ve been spoken to.”
“Then what is it that they called you?”
“Well… some of them called me Mally.”
As soon as the word left his mouth he was nearly knocked to the ground by a slap across the face.
“What was that for?!”
“This is not a name! This is a word you will not say!” she cried.
“It is a word they use. It is a word they use for us.” Her words were shaking with emotion. “It is not a good word. It is word a man uses when he tells another man about bad things that a malthrope does. It is a bad word.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” he said quietly, his mind turning over all the slaves who had called him by that name.
“I am only here for two years and I know this. Every malthrope in Tressor knows this. How do you not know this?”
“I’ve never met another malthrope.”
“That is foolish. You have a mother, a father.”
“My mother died when I was very young. And I don’t remember anything about my father. I was raised by a… I was raised by humans.”
Sorrel looked at him and for a moment the hardness in her features faltered. There was a flash of pity in her eyes. “This… This explains much.” She shook herself, willing her protective layer of defiant independence back into place. “It is late. The fire has burned too long. I will go now. Tomorrow, I will find you. We will begin this.”
“You have a safe place to sleep?”
“I do. You do not. Do not follow me or the deal is no more. Understand, er…” she began, gesturing vaguely for a few moments while she fished for the word. Finally, she abandoned the search. “Teyn?”
“What does Teyn mean?”
“It is like… a dead thing that does not leave. Or something that is there, but is not.”
“It is close enough.”
“Why would you call me Teyn?”
“I said before. You have no tail. Dead malthropes have no tails. If you walk around without one, you are a Teyn. Now go find someplace to sleep, Teyn. Tomorrow I will find you. We will begin.”
She took a few unsteady steps with her new crutch, easing into the pain of her leg and the awkwardness of her aid. As she left the fading light of the fire, her steps quickened and she was gone. With little recourse, the creature she’d dubbed Teyn scooped the loose, sandy soil over the flames until they were extinguished and found a dense stand of trees he hoped would take the edge from the wind and keep him from prying eyes.
He huddled against the driving breeze, alone with his thoughts again. It was astounding. He’d only been with Sorrel for an hour or so, but already her absence burned at him. A part of it, a large part, was the simple comfort in not being alone. A few weeks on the run hadn’t been enough to wipe away years of never being without the smell and sound familiar creatures. Even when the other slaves had all hated him, there was something about knowing that they were there, that they were always there, that gave his mind a foundation. And, of course, there had been Ben… No. Not that thought. He sifted his mind for anything else to think of. Sometimes the emptiness of forgetting someone is preferable to the pain of remembering them.
That’s it for this little peek. Lain hasn’t turned into the epic warrior we all know and love yet, but he’s on his way. Hopefully those of you who were hoping for a glimpse of the creature he was are happy with what you’ve seen. Until next time, thanks for reading.