My First Word at the Fore Is ‘Yergh’
A lot of time has gone by since this … what to call it? Some of the girls call it an adventure, but I think of it more as a disaster. A lot of time, and a lot of even crazier adventures. Amazing, how much time, and change, and feelings I had to moil through before I could even touch the first version of this battered old notebook without shuddering.
In fact, I didn’t think I ever would be able to face rewriting this splorch of a record. But a while back, during the recent — and much bigger — mess, I let some people read my records, and their questions made it pretty clear to me that I was going to have to redo it.
I first wrote it right after it happened, when I was still good and mad. I’d thought my memories — so vivid and fresh — were the best perspective on events, but I’ve since learned that the madder I get, the less trustworthy is memory. I recalled my side, all right, but I also remembered a whole lot of anger-driven guesses as facts. That’s the kind of thing I have to fix if I’m going to have these records stand as an honest chronicle of my time, and not just a long CJ rant.
Since I did let others read this, I can no longer assume that my records will just be for Mearsieans further down the stream of time. People who know us just a little were confused, which makes me realize that any id — ah, person trudging through my records in the future might not know anything about us.
You can skip this part and go straight to what happened if you already know who we are. If you don’t, here are some quick details.
You’ll know, of course, that I am Cherene Jennet Sherwood, right-hand splat to Clair Sherwood, Mearsies Heili’s queen. Being a princess doesn’t mean fancy clothes (who’d see them?) or fancy rituals (who’d attend ’em?), but being in charge when Clair’s not around for some reason.
We have no court, and no aristos, in small, mostly-farm-and-wood Mearsies Heili. We’re kids. We’ve been kids for a while, now. It can happen here on Sartorias-deles, I hope you’re aware; I didn’t know any Old Sartoran history when this adventure occurred, so in case you’re still learning old history, I’ll just tell you that our ancestors used to control a lot of things — including their aging process. The light magic non-aging spell is a kind of faint echo of that.
Anyhow, Clair didn’t have any siblings, and when she was small she was alone a lot, learning magic, so she zapped her way around on our continent, finding girls who were unhappy, and offering them a new start — and then she discovered how to transfer to other worlds. It was on Earth that she found me, and later Gwen.
So eventually there were nine of us all told — not counting Clair’s cousin, meanly named Puddlenose by the Chwahir who kidnapped him when small (that’s again another story, some of which will get airing here) and his traveling buddy Christoph. They were itchfeet, and regarded Mearsies Heili as home base, rather than home.
We had plenty of fun. Life in Mearsies Heili was great. Sometimes we ran around the white palace up on top of Mount Marcus, and the rest of the time we were down below in the forestland that takes up much of the middle of our small country, staying nights in the cozy underground hideout — nicknamed the Junkyard, so any outsiders who overheard us talking about it wouldn’t think it important — that Clair made with a long series of magic spells.
The only annoyances were the Chwahir. See, way back before Mearsieans settled on this land for a new start, Tser Mearsias (Tser means old, in case this is translated) was fairly near the Land of the Chwahir. This was on the Sartoran continent, halfway around the world. The Chwahir, having ruined most of their land — the part not ruined by the Colendi when they put up those mountains a kabillion years ago or so — needed (they felt) to conquer some new (I guess trade was beneath your average Dark magic Sorcerer King — or maybe they were terrible at it) and Guess Who was right in their path.
Chwahir and Mearsieans had been battling it out, not just warfare-type fighting but magic and every other way of force-versus-resistance that humans have come up with, for centuries. When a group of Mearsieans left and came here 700-odd years ago to find peace and settle a new land, it wasn’t long before a land-hungry younger brother of the Chwahir ruler also managed to find his way after them, bringing a lot of soldiers (that’s about all you can do in Chwahirsland, if you happen to be a boy, is be a soldier) and the typical Chwahir ruler ‘what’s yours is mine’ attitude.
You can look at my old records on the history of MH if you really want to know how our capital city was raised into the sky to be on a level with the palace, and how the Chwahir took the Shadowland below as theirs. Just know that this was how things looked when Clair inherited her throne at age thirteen.
Locally, then, we had Kwenz of the Chwahir, older brother to the far crueler and nastier Shnit — back in Chwahirsland, halfway round the world — and Kwenz’ heir was a kid named Jilo. We Mearsieans had had a lot of clashes with Jilo and his snailly buddies, you can bet. Duel … to the pie!
You can also bet that Shnit interfered from a distance. Kwenz hated us, but sometimes it seemed like it was old habit, rather than real conviction. Clair was sure that if his younger brother hadn’t been constantly nosing over his shoulder, Kwenz would have liked to be left alone with his books and old man dreams, and Shnit had messed up Jilo so much with various spells to keep him from conspiring, about the only clear thing ol’ Pilo wanted was our underground hideout. Hah!
As for Shnit, he’d ruled way too long, and horribly, and he was known for his cruelty, and his grudge-holding against a loooong list of pet hates.
And right there at the top of the list were all Mearsieans. Which is why he’d kidnapped Puddlenose — Puddlenose is the nicest of the things Shnit called him so often they became his name — when he was a baby, just for the sake of meanness. Well, that was one reason.
The other reason was because he had no other heirs. Shnit killed off his brothers (that was how things were done in his family) except Kwenz, who wasn’t really a very good villain, and had also killed off all their sons.
Except one, who got away.
Soooo, with the aid of Clair’s memory-elixir, here it is as truthfully as I can tell it.
It began as a lovely day, one we couldn’t waste inside.
We went for a run through the forest, stopping only when we discovered that Jilo and his pals had been splatting around — probably looking for us, or more specifically the Junkyard, which he really wanted for his own. Broken twigs, sword-slashed tree-trunks, and bits of food that the local animals hadn’t found yet, or had rejected, were the signs. It didn’t exactly take woodcraft to know when the Chwahir had been lurking around.
“Food!” Faline yelled, hands on her hips. “Chwahir food! Eugh!” Her red braids seemed to bristle with her indignation.
Irene tipped her head back as she dramatically surveyed the trees. “I don’t think the woods have been poisoned yet.”
“CJ,” Gwen said, turning to me, “you better make a decontamination spell fast.”
I mumbled and waved my arms around, while the other girls buried the mess. I wasn’t doing real magic, of course — but the symbolism worked. It’s the same as wiping your arm off, after a villain puts a mitt on you, then you put what you wiped off onto the ground and stomp on it. (Only there were times when I think Gwen and Sherry thought my decontamination ‘magic’ was real. They certainly think villain cooties are real. As I sometimes do.)
“They’re up to something,” Dhana said, her light blue eyes narrowing as she sniffed the air. “Something’s wrong.”
“We haven’t had any real trouble with the Chwahir for a while,” Seshemerria said, looking slightly worried. The oldest, and tallest, of us, Seshe is also the peacemaker.
“Trouble?” I repeated. “Nah. Just ol’ Pilo and his snailbrains. Whatever plan those boneheads are fumbling, we can zap in our sleep. Now, I’d be worried if Puddlenose and Christoph suddenly showed up — ”
“And Rel,” Irene added, swinging around so her long ponytail swished. Irene can’t seem to do anything unless it’s dramatic. “We always see those three just before some kind of big trouble squelches down onto us.”
“Rel is the splat,” I said promptly. (Those who know my records up until now know why I don’t like Rel — and for anyone who doesn’t, there’ll be plenty about him later.)
“Not to mention Puddlenose ’n’ Christoph,” Faline put in, always wanting to see insults distributed fairly to all deserving recipients.
“They do have a kind of trouble magnet,” Seshe concurred, ignoring all the comments with the ease of long practice. “So if they aren’t here, then maybe everything is fine.”
Dhana was still frowning. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at her — a thin girl about twelve with short light brown hair and a changeable face — she’s actually not human, she just took human form for a time. Even her name isn’t her actual one — it’s the first thing she said after meeting Diana, but she tapped her front as she said it, and we got so used to it that it became her name, which mixes up visitors sometimes. Her unnerving sensitivity to weather, and air, and water were trustworthy atmosphere-gauges. “Something. I feel something not quite right. We should do a patrol,” she said. “Just in case.”
“In the meantime,” Sherry said, straightening up from the last of the burying, “that food reminded me that it’s lunch time.”
“If that stuff reminded you of lunch,” Gwen said, pointing at the last grayish bits of dried Chwahir bread before she swept dirt over them, “then you must be hungry. And if you’re hungry, then I must be too, or whose stomach is that growling?”
“I thought a wolf was loose,” Faline said promptly.
We started back to the Junky, Faline and Gwen busy with an insult fight. Irene volunteered to referee, but she actually insulted both so freely with her enthusiastic ‘evaluations’ that they soon turned on her.
Dhana had taken off instantly, of course, soon’s I nodded at the word ‘patrol.’ This was her kind of day, clear, cool, with bands of rain coming through intermittently.
Right now the clouds were gone from immediately overhead, and golden light and greenish shadow dappled the faces of the girls as we walked along the pathways. I saw Diana look up suddenly, her brown face appreciative of the smells of humus and wet cedar and oak bark, and then — with a flick of her long, glossy dark braids — she too took off, in the opposite direction Dhana had gone.
The two of them were the fastest of all of us. They’d cover the usual areas the Chwahir lurked in, and still be back in time for dessert.
The rest of us poked along until Faline bellowed suddenly, “HOT FUDGE SUNDAES!”
I didn’t even ask how she’d managed to get there from insults. What I did notice was that Seshe’s mild expression of worry hadn’t gone away. She walked slowly, not hearing the chatter of the others, her long straight blond hair swinging slightly forward half-hiding her face, her serious gray-blue eyes distant. It meant she sensed something, some subtle pattern in birdsong or the rustlings of small, hidden animals, that the rest of us couldn’t discern.
She didn’t speak up, which meant she didn’t trust her senses, but we were all hungry, and her expression was enough to convince me.
“Hold hands,” I called out. “Junky transfer.”
They stood together, obediently forming a mental image of the Junkyard, and this way I could perform a multiple transfer spell. It wasn’t far, and everyone pictured the destination, so I was able to manage it.
We whizzed to the Junkyard. Using magic meant not having to search exhaustively round the area before we used the entrance, which we guarded assiduously.
While I recovered from the transfer-magic (it feels kind of like being socked in the stomach by an invisible fist at the same time you’re whirled around a couple times in a barrel) Seshe and Gwen went into the kitchen. When the transfer-woozies passed, as they usually did in a few seconds unless it was a long one, I could hear them talking up lunch, mixing magic and actual preparation. Clair had given us food-magic spells ages ago, which made meals (and cleanup) easy.
Wondering what they’d concoct, I flopped down on the braided rug in the main room and stared up at the roots in the hollowed-out ceiling. I didn’t have any premonitions — I just loved the way the Junky smelled when we first got inside. Kind of like wet loam, and trees, and the faintest mossy smell, and good food aromas overlaying it all. I looked at our pictures on the walls — pretty ones and silly ones — and I wanted to curl up with a history from some kingdom I’d never heard of, and read all the rest of the day. Or maybe go upstairs to the white palace, once Clair was done with morning audiences, and see what she could teach me in magic. I hadn’t studied for a while. The weather had been too nice to be cooped up indoors.
Faline let out a whoop, scattering my thoughts.
I rolled over as Seshe and Gwen carried trays in. We all were soon busy chomping our way through tacos and other crunchies, favorite foods from two worlds and several countries. I was midway through my second taco when I heard noises at the tunnel entrance.
The others hardly looked up as Diana came down the tunnel at a run. “CJ!” Her dark eyes were narrowed. “Someone here to see you. Not a Chwahir!” She flung a braid behind her, and swiped at her damp forehead. “Asked for you by name.”
That got everyone’s interest.
“Me?” I repeated, popping the last of my taco into my mouth. “Not Clair?”
“Huh.” I dusted off my skirt — I was wearing my favorite outfit, a long green skirt, white shirt, and black wool vest — and got to my feet. “Then I guess I’ll go see what’s what.”
Diana didn’t say anything more, but she ran down the lower tunnel to her room and reemerged a moment later buckling her knife belt around her waist. I decided maybe I’d better get my own — just in case. From Diana’s attitude, I could already tell that whoever the mystery visitor was, it wasn’t a kid.
“So what’s this person like?” I asked as we trooped up to the cave exit. The other girls had all decided to come with — which was okay by me.
“Seemed friendly enough,” Diana said cautiously, and we all heard the unsaid For a grownup.
“Definitely not a Chwahir?” Faline butted in, her slanty blue-green eyes crinkled in anticipation.
“They have to add insults when they talk to Mearsieans,” Gwen added. “It’s in their military codes.”
“Well, we insult them,” I said.
Faline added, “And ours are much better.”
“Insults,” Irene intoned in a voice quivering with fake disgust. “We do not frivole our time away with mere insult. That’s for the dull and habitual mind. What we gift our villains with are …”
The exchange had all the flow and timing of lo-o-o-ong habit.
“Pocalubes!” Sherry exclaimed happily. Whatever else I’ve done, she maintains that my best invention was the pocalube — which is an insult of creativity and magnitude, never your popular or commonplace insult-word, prefaced by at least seven adjectives.
“Our pocalubes,” Irene declaimed, raising a finger skyward, “are Art.”
Diana waited till everyone was done before adding, “Friendly but condescending. Something about a proposition to put before you. But he seemed bored.”
“Adult,” Irene sneered in disgust. “Wasting his time with stupid little kiddies. The very worst kind!”
“Why, is what I want to know,” I said. “I mean, if it’s some state thing, then he ought to go up the mountain and see Clair. Or one of the governors, if it’s not a problem here.”
“I think it’s someone from another country,” Diana said. “Accent.”
“So he doesn’t know how to get up the mountain the easy way,” Seshe put in.
Well, there are plenty of signs,” I said. “But I guess I can send him — though I don’t see why I should torture Clair with some sap of a grownup who looks down on kids,” I added, getting annoyed already.
“Except for the pleasurable thought,” Irene said in her prissiest voice, “of watching how she takes care of them.”
I pictured Clair’s serious, squarish face, framed by her snow-white hair curling down her back, her smart, kindly grayish-green eyes, and how she manages, ever so quietly, to puncture the biggest blowhards with just a few words. I wished — hopelessly — that I had that kind of self-command. But no, I’m CJ, whose moods jump first and mouth jumps right in after, leaving brain trailing way behind.
“Just ahead,” Diana whispered, and everyone fell silent so our voices wouldn’t echo ahead through the trees. “With Dhana. She made sure they wouldn’t follow me and find the Junky.”
One glance at our mystery visitor, and I took an instant dislike — an impression intensified by the hostility in Dhana’s posture.
The man was tall, and his hair under a jaunty feathered cap was longish and fair. He was dressed in woods-colored clothing — brown and green — but his tunic and trousers were not those of a common working citizen. They were the fabrics of the aristocrat, accented by his expensive high blackweave boots and the fancy hilt on the sword at his side.
His posture, a negligent attitude as he leaned against one of the trees, completed the impression.
Not that any of us were impressed. Dhana stood her ground, arms crossed, eyes narrowed. She obviously didn’t trust this gnackle in our forest, and made no attempt to hide her reaction. Knowing what she was like when irritated, I wondered what their conversation had been like — and I secretly hoped, as I crossed the last few paces of the clearing, that she’d gotten some good ones in.
Not that she seemed to have made much of an impression on the man. He surveyed me from black hair to bare toes, then the faintest quirk of his upper lip into a sneer of contempt.
I stopped. The girls stopped behind me.
A couple quick, graceful steps and Dhana took up position at my side, her breathing short, sharp, and annoyed.
“You,” the man drawled, “are Cherene Jennet Sherwood?”
“I go by that name,” I said, instantly boiling by the way he’d emphasized the ‘you’ — like he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Why, is it yours, too?”
He ignored the crack. (Later on I found out that indeed, he’d been on the receiving end of a generous helping of Dhana’s sarcasm.)
“We have a proposition to make,” the man said. His attitude made it clear he didn’t care what I decided.
Ordinarily that would have served as a warning. I mean, why come and offer something if you don’t really want to be accepted? If I’d looked beyond that, maybe things would have gone differently … or not.
Anyway I didn’t.
“That’s nice,” I said in a sugary little-kid voice. Then, more normally, “Make it somewhere else. C’mon, girls.” I turned my back.
I’d taken about four steps when the creep gave a whistle that somehow managed to sound bored.
At once a whole gaggle of creeps — adults all, though some of them were youngish — efficiently ringed us, a couple from the trees and others from hiding places. I glanced at Dhana, who looked surprised. So, the creep had picked the time and place, huh? On our territory?
And without us knowing?
That was my first hint of real danger ahead. These weren’t uncertain Chwahir, their eyes magically enhanced to see in the Shadowland but clumsy out in the daylight, who didn’t know how to climb trees much less hide in one. These folk had all been well trained by someone.
I pulled my knife and whirled around — and because that slob with the feathered cap was smiling so smugly (he hadn’t bothered to move) I said loudly — with as much disgust as possible — ”I might have known.”
Meanwhile, his whistle-squad was slowly advancing, tightening the ring round us.
I took a couple running steps and leaped, catching hold of a tree branch. From the edge of my vision I saw a long arm reach to grab me, just an instant before I swung out of range. Tree-climbing we’re very good at; I swung, let go, flew, caught a branch just above where their leader still leaned.
Whoever was chasing me had misjudged my direction, and was further hampered by orders to grab-but-not-hurt, so I was able to swing my feet down and clop the leader creep on the side of the jaw, a hefty kick.
He hadn’t expected it — he hadn’t even looked up. He staggered, angry now. I laughed, even though my toes hurt, and reached for another branch. My plan was to drop out of grabbing range so I could get the girls into hand-holding reach and transfer us to safety — but I didn’t get that far.
The man drew his sword, and took a swing at me. I kicked wildly, struggling too fast to get out of his range, suddenly afraid I was about to be sliced into cutties.
The flat of the blade thwacked me squarely across my stomach.
“Foof!” I dropped onto the grass below, a hilt hit behind my ear, and that was that.
Copyright © 2011 Sherwood Smith