The Bloodbeast: 001 "There were no such things as starmen"

There are other worlds beyond the ice.

Above the frozen heights of the Ice Fangs, beyond the the clouds that mask them, there are other worlds and other tribes. Up there, where the stars make a thick, bright disc across the nightsky, is where the starmen come from.

The starmen came with a new light to the night sky and a desire for Recarti gold. High in the Ice Fangs where the trees bowed under the winds of dawn, I stood by a towering stone and, in the morning, learned of their coming.

“Starmen. Men from the stars.”

The gold dust on the altar had formed into a tile with a few glyphs on it. They were not even well-made glyphs. Moving the tile aside with the tip of a claw, I sprinkled another round of gold dust on the niche, and waited.

The stars faded. Dawn glinted off the snowy peaks above. Leaves rustled, making lacy patterns against the sky. The wind rose and stirred in my mane and ruffled the fringes along my arms as I turned back to the stone and reached, idly, for the tile and its clumsy words.


The glyph for stars was the general one, the one that meant any or all of them which meant it was useless to the navigators and rarely used by anyone, least of all astronomers, and so was forgotten by most people who ever  learnt it . 'Men'. The sign with the spear that could also mean hunters. Star Hunters. Then, to make sure that the message was understood in the correct meaning, not people hunting stars but, “Men from the stars.” The sign for journeying was one that everyone knew.

There were no such things as starmen. Astronomers had often told me this, those pale old men with faded eyes and dried up voices who did not like my songs. No one, they told me, could live higher up the slopes than the cloud people do. Past those places, the air is too thin and too cold, and even the ice-birds do not fly to the highest peaks. The stars, they said, were higher still. Nothing, they said, could live up there in the dark and fuel-less cold.

Yet, the stars were bright, like distant campfires on the plains.

There was a soughing in the leaves above me. The dawn wind came down from the fading stars and the trees nodded and sighed around me, gathering color in the growing light, the sky turning blue around the white peaks. It was like all other days. Nothing changed.

Those clumsy words.

Everything changed.

Every shimmer and shade and shadow of every leaf in morning gold was staring itself into my too-wide eyes to be remembered, forever, before the world was changed.

I turned, and ran down to the camp.

"Ramedd," I called. I saw her first, her white hair gleaming like snow through the leaves. "Ramedd!" My voice was hoarse.

“What is it?” Ramedd turned to see me clutching at a frond to stop myself from falling and sprawling down the slope. "Poet, has something bitten you again?” 

I could not answer. My throat was dry. 

“Ram's tits,” she swore. She thrust her ladle at her eldest child, who was glad to take it and be the woman at the fire, and came to take my arm. "Why don't you ever look where you're stepping?”

“What's going on?” another voice asked. The giants were sitting at the top of the stairs to the longhouse to mix the morning cakes. They licked their fingers.

“Has someone found us?” Elurd asked.

“Will we have to move on?” asked Uram.

“Something's bitten him,” Ramedd said. The pressure of her hand forced me forwards to stand by the fire. “Again. Look, he's shivering.”

But I was warm and drenched in sunlight. This was how it must be for the Cruentauri, I thought, the heroes. It must be like this for them all the time, for those who bore the gold mark, everything pouring in at them, every whisper and shadow and smell, the mind a race and the world so slow. The world felt slow. 

“Bassei?” It was just a whisper. I couldn't make my lips move. She wasn't there. I knew where she was. She had been hunting in the forest with our daughters and even now she was returning with long, swift strides, carrying a fowl whose throat was slit, drops of blood falling where her feet had stepped.

“Where's the bite?” Ramedd demanded. “What was it? Did you see it? Boys,” she turned to her children before I could answer. “Go get the ointment.” Her two elder sons ran like small men, playing at being adults taking care of me. They ran up the steps and past the giants. The toddlers, left behind by the fire, looked at me with immense reproach, seeing their breakfast delayed.

“It's not a bite,” I heard Uram say. He was like a creature of the sun, all big and golden. “I've only seen him like this once before.”

But I could not remember when I had ever felt like this.

Bassei's daughters, little ones I thought of as mine, my little laughing, tumbling ones, burst through into the clearing, bright coloured feathers clutched in their fists. One launched herself up into my arms, nearly knocking me over. Her sister hugged my legs, nearly pulling me down.

“Careful,” Ramedd said quickly. “He’s not well this morning.”

The one in my arms abruptly pushed back my eyelids with her empty fist and peered in, as solicitous as any little mother.

“He’s all right,” she reported. I shook my head free of her hand and hid my face against her mop of a mane. It smelled of riddle-berry wood that grew on the western crevice where they had been hunting.

Bassei followed them into the clearing, moving more sedately than they. Vines fell closed behind her and she moved towards us in the grace of the growing light and the wind about her shoulders. There was a restlessness in her step that morning, as she moved towards us bird in hand. The flames whirled and strained up in the wind, and she dropped the fowl beside them. Ramedd caught it up again before it hit the ground, blue eyes meeting yellow ones. The wind gave the flames a disgruntled tug.

“Bassei,” I said, and her head turned towards me, yellow eyes blazing, gold mark shining. She knew that the world had changed, she had to know it, she had to feel it, as if Regard herself had already whispered it to her on a wind from the stars. “Bassei,” I said, explaining it to her. “It is only that the starmen have come,” I said. “Bassei.”

The wind sighed away, died away and left us. No one spoke. They were waiting for me to explain more and I did not know what to say.

“Starmen?” Ramedd murmured, blue eyes sharp. “What are starmen?”

“Starmen,” I repeated. “Men from the stars.”
“Men?” Elurd asked, keeping his voice low and soothing.

“Here?” asked Uram.

"His hand is bleeding," said one of the girls, from her child's level.

My hand was hurt. Holding it up I saw drops of blood trying to escape from my fist. Clutched tightly about the little tile, the fragment from the altar, my claws had dug into my flesh and I had not even noticed.

“Poet!” Ramedd looked from the blood to me, and dropping the fowl out of the way. Her boys, with their ointment, closed ranks beside her, arms akimbo as if they had man-fur to display.

Bassei, though, acted first. Thrusting her spear into the ash-ridden earth she reached and took my hand. Gently she smoothed it open, so my claws freed from my skin, and I was grateful for the warmth of her touch. Next, taking a cloth, from Ramedd's shoulder, she began to dab away the blood. Her mane fell forward and brushed her shoulders with its traces of black and brown and tan, not a thing of beauty, but I loved her. Beneath her mane, her vanes were stirring, catching sounds I could not hear just then.

She found the little tile in my palm. When she was ready, she nodded to Ramedd, who reached over and drew the golden piece away, holding it as gingerly pincered in her claws as if it was some poisonous thing such as she thought had bitten me.

"Poet," she said accusingly. "I thought you were poisoned. Why were you shivering?" She glanced at Bassei. "Has the gold poisoned him?"

Bassei, in answer, sniffed my hand, and then shook her head and signalled Frae at fire to fetch warm water.

Ramedd studied the tile.

"This thing is a mess," she grumbled. "How can you tell what it says?"

"Read it," Elurd suggested.

“How?” Ramedd looked dubiously at the mess and wiped the blood away.

They all crowded to look over her shoulder and read it.

"Starmen." Ramedd looked up at me. "Men from the stars. That's all it says. It doesn't even show who sent it."

"It was the old astronomer." Bassei lifted the piece from Ramedd's hand. “Maffos.”

Of course the pendantic old teacher would know every glyph and how to use them, and also say his message twice to be on the safe side. It had to have been him.

"He was frightened," Bassei added. 

Of course. He had to have been, to have left his name off the message, and to have been so brief. The old astronomer was never willingly brief.

"We'll go," I said. We had to go to the City and see starmen for ourselves, and because the others would want to see what had made the old astronomer so frightened.

"Bassei won't," Ramedd said quickly. "She is still banished. The plainsking would still kill her."

This was something we could not resolve. The plainsking had tried to kill her and failed. On the other hand, his failure was partly because we had spent some five years hidden in this secret camp. Neither he nor his army had been able to find her.
“We could go secretly,” Frae said, from beside her pot of food at the fire. "Sneak in.”

“Not 'we'," Ramedd said sharply. "You children are most certainly not going.”  Her boys looked crestfallen. Her toddlers eyed the pot of breakfast. Frae, though, answered back.

"I'm not a child anymore."

"Good," Ramedd answered. "You can stay and mind the little ones."

"So," Elurd said slowly, thoughtfully, looking at Ramedd. "You're saying that we are, indeed, going."

One quick meal, and a swift search for the things we would wear for the occasion, the giants in their golden gear that made them as bright as pillars of fire moving under the sun, and Ramedd with her old horned helmet from her days on the plains, and her bolas looped in her belt, and I even found my cloak and kilt, the dyes long faded, and put them on.

Frae scowled at us. She wanted us to sneak into the City, not parade in like a line of merchants with acrobats to draw the crowds. Elurd had to explain to her that there had never been much chance of the giants sneaking unnoticed past anyone, therefore they wore the golden clothes as protection. Sheer awe of them would allow them to pass.

We hoped.

We walked together, the children with us, up the path to the stream that flowed from the cave at the edge of the camp.

From the mouth of the cave came a little stream. Gorla, the dragon from the Strangerlands, who was living in the stream back in those days. We called her a dragon because she was a friend and we could not very well call her a monster. She watched the giants jealously, who were knocking chunks of salt-lick off a rock to take with them, but she had given up protesting when they did this.

Bassei whispered to her what had happened, twined her arms around Gorla's long neck, and said farewell. We said goodbye to the children and told them to be good, told them to look after Frae. Then embraces came loose, fingers lost their hold, hands were unclasped and voices faded with a last admonishment, so we entered the cave, and we ran.

We ran with our fingers on the wall beside us, feeling a carving there. The path we ran on was called the Way of the Dawn Growler, which was the kind of bird Bassei had caught that morning. Long ago, underfolk had come this way, had come from caverns under the mountains, blinking and blinded by the daylight, peering cautiously out of the cave, waiting for starlight. In the softer gloom they moved, from shadow to shadow under the trees. In the dawn, they caught the Dawn Growlers, as they came to drink. They looked at the colours of the feathers until the growing brightness of day hurt their eyes, then they took their kill back with them for the feast. So our fingertips told us.

Then the carvings were behind us, no more signs marked the way, and with only our own echoes to guide us, we ran.

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Next Ch 02