Friday, July 07, 2017

Toadstone

I did not invent the Toadstone
A groan reached Kayda from the rocks to her left. She quickly scanned that area; no man was in sight, though she now knew the red hillocks held at least one she could not see. She wondered if others lay hidden among the cacti and chipped stones, if the lament was but bait in a trap laid for her. But there was no reason for such a trap: as a woman alone in this desert she posed no threat except to the stones she hunted and the cacti that quenched her persistent thirst and occasional hunger. Kayda had taken care to ensure she had been neither followed nor watched, and her confidence in her own abilities remained unshaken. No, whomever lay beyond that outcrop was unaware of her presence, at least for now. Checking that her dagger was loose and her stone-purse tight, she turned toward the sound and began to climb the barren slope.

The camp before her served one man. She could tell from the single hammock, the tiny fire, and the deep cleft in which they were hidden, that the man wished to remain unseen. He had failed in that attempt. The Tanaki lay alone, writhing near a small pile of twigs that had provided his campfire with life. She guessed that the pile had also held life less helpful. For in these deserted places dwelt serpents that could snuff a man’s life with a single bite. But the end came not before the bitten wished for death, called for death, begged death to rescue him from the flames that burned within his every joint, his every vein. The purple skin that shewed beneath the Tanaki’s hand told her that he had met one such serpent. His whimpers told her that the desert would be quiet again soon. With a quick glance behind her, she slipped over the cusp of the barren ridge and swam down the rocks into his camp.

Kayda knew that even now she could save him. Though his limbs lay twisted and his swollen tongue thrashed his cracked lips, her toadstone had pulled worse from the brink of death. Her left hand clasped her stone-purse, fingers tracing the stone’s rough corners, measuring its unnatural heat. Until his final breath, she could ensure that he lived.

She shook her head. He was Tanaki, an Other. A Tanaki was an enemy. She had not watched her brother die screaming at the bloody hands of Tanaki, had not suffered humiliation beneath the loins of Tanaki, to rescue one now. Especially one who did not respect her desert.

The Tanaki’s frantic eyes met hers, holding them, and she released the toadstone that still warmed her fingertips from beneath the leather of her purse. His eyes then rolled back, his mouth expelled a wan breath, and the Tanaki shrunk into a limp pile before her. Now it was too late anyway, she thought.

Kayda searched the Tanaki for anything of value he had carried on his final journey. His tent surrendered food enough for her to last a week in these barren lands. His copper canteen would serve her for a lifetime unless she decided to sell it. She would not sully herself with his clothing, and none would give three coppers for his hammock. But upon his swollen finger lay a silver ring, carved into a snake eating its own tail, with what she guessed were rubies for the serpent’s eyes. She grinned at the possibility that the snake upon the ring represented the same manner of serpent that had slain its owner. And as she worked it from a calloused finger and dropped it into the leather purse that contained her toadstone, she hoped that it would bring her better fortune than it had him.

Climbing from the cleft and returning to her hunt, she pondered the silver ring, its self-destructive serpent, and the gems that gave it vision. But the sun’s heat soon beat from her any thoughts other than those of home. Making a best guess at the direction of her own village, she pulled her cloak over her head and willed her tired feet forward. Still, her eyes scanned the ground in front of her. For there were toadstones here. And with such stones one could save a life. Or not.

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