Verde: Temoc Goes Home, pr. 43, Gemini
Catalina woke to wash at breakfast. The intense cramps of her moontime were lessening, and soon her flow would be, too. It was breakfast time, and she felt like eating a few cold cactus lobes and avocado before retreating to the darkest wall of Song’s red cave. She dozed again, trying to make up for a night spent half-awake in pain. When she roused, she saw that Temoc had come in from the riverbank, and was washing away the sweat and river muck of a morning’s work. Soon, he came to sit beside her with a hopeful expression.
“You can start gathering things, if you want,” Catalina said, a distant lamp leaving a bright streak across her sandy-light hair. “I’ll be ready to leave by the afternoon tide. And by tomorrow I could be rowing, if they’ll have me.”
Temoc smiled, hope enlivening his being. Finally, he was going home. He left to pack his things and inquire about any pay they may be due. He knew he hadn’t earned much, if anything. He could do only light work, and had slept his entire stay in Song’s red cave, still healing from his many wounds and the hard journey Overland. But the big, greying master of the storehouses handed over a fair wage for Catalina’s work and fierce fighting in Guardhouse West. It had rained overnight, and the pebbly sand’s blush of green spring growth had grown taller already. More shrubs and trees were bursting into flower and leaf. Temoc went down to the trade-shore, hitching rides on little boats that ferried goods to ships being loaded for departure, looking for room on a larger one before they were all filled.
Between trips, he met Wayland on the shore, asking about a ship headed to the Anaconda River. “You’re not going to find a ride straight there,” Temoc told him. “Ships will stop in Verde first.”
“Isn’t that where you’re going?” Wayland asked, staring blankly into the sky.
Temoc nodded, but didn’t bother to snap Wayland from his reverie, relieved that the scrawny woodcutter had become distracted. He stalked away, hopping into another little boat as it’s crew braced against the lapping of the gulf’s little waves to steady the vessel.
The Overland’s mares arrived from the field just after midday. They stopped in the red cave, where the sweat was washed from them. The space was becoming crowded with prospective new dragonstitchers and curious onlookers gathering at the well lit altar which Comet had chosen to teach beside.
“We should keep Greta’s armor here, in the Overland’s cache,” Temoc said, idly watching Comet. He still seemed a stranger in some ways, even though Temoc had journeyed with him for months. He sat in comfortable nonchalance, looking as if he’d just woken up. Wrapped loosely in the garment usually tied at his waist, his fresh full moon’s cuts were mostly obscured. The light of the several lamps gleamed in the curls of his fair hair, and he still held breakfast’s empty bowl in his hand.
Bridgit scratched under Greta’s thick mane, and the dark mare’s ears relaxed in enjoyment. “I’m going to miss her. I hope it’s really safe enough, where she’s going.”
Temoc nodded in agreement. The petite warrioress’s red hair had grown out a bit during the journey; beginning to form tight, unruly curls. He looked down, his gaze meeting the spirited flash in her eyes. “It’s been nice knowing you,” he said.
Bridgit laughed. “Don’t say it like we’ll never meet again,” she told the stocky warrior.
Temoc shrugged. “Maybe I’ll stay home, this time.”
“And maybe you won’t,” Bridgit put a hand on her hip. She’d seen him come over and back across the Mountain more than once, before things had gotten dangerous.
The horses’ field guards accompanied them to the shore, helping Catalina and Temoc load them onto little barges with crates of processed coconut oil. Wayland was among those snugging the mares into slings below decks, and he smiled broadly when he saw Temoc and Catalina.
“Looks like we’re taking the same ship! Brothers of the Oververland, still traveling together,” the scrawny warrior exclaimed with glee, strings of dark hair flapping with his movement.
Temoc stared dumbly, and Catalina shot him an evil glare.
“-And sisters!” he added hastily.
Catalina crossed her arms. His tendency to thoughtless stupidity made him a liability, not an asset. When she spoke, her tone was acid. “You are not my brother, and you never will earn the right to say that.”
Wayland shook his head. “Tsk… you never know,” he said with hope.
As the ship left harbor, Catalina watched the low, stone-jagged hills go by, their scrubby forest mostly brown and dormant, with blushes of green on the weather ward curves of rain catching ridges. Birds circled and cried over the receding glacier etched landscape, and a pod of sleek, grey dolphins burst from the surface of the water, leaping alongside their many-oared ship.
At first, Catalina spent most of her time keeping the horses company, but by the journey’s second day she was beginning to take shifts, rowing alongside Wayland. The first time Temoc relieved her of his unpleasant company, he was deep in the stomach-turning details of a story about foot rot and trench mouth. But Temoc wasn’t strong enough to row for long, and Wayland soon came back. It wasn’t long before he started telling yet another crude adventure. This one was about the time he’d snuck away with a girl and had her while two other guys were busy fighting over her. A certain percentage of men would have found entertainment in tales of women with no honor, but Catalina wondered why he would bother trying to impress her with such stories. Finally she paused in her rowing to glare at him. “Stop spending your breath and put your strength into the oar,” she growled. He was silent for a time, but it didn’t last.
The winds were so little that sometimes the sail was nearly slack, but the long ship sped through an incredibly calm sea under human power. The Western Gulf’s water was shallow, nearly iridescent blue-green and teeming with life. Almost all the content of their meals came from the surrounding waters, and for the first half of the journey they skirted a low lying island, it’s barely visible banks choked with a tangle of mangroves.
On the evening of the fourth day of travel, Catalina stood with Temoc on the ship’s deck as they waited to come into harbor. This countryside was far greener than the base of the Grey Mountains, and flat, save for gentle undulations. People had carved pastures and fields from an evergreen jungle, and the land was patchworked with the normal rotations of human cultivation; alternating gardens, pastureland and the brushy regrowth of resting soil. The river’s wide, slow moving delta was dotted with the green of reeds clinging to shifting little sandbars. It looked shallow and stoneless; not like any of the rivers Catalina had ever seen. The town of Verde lay on the shore at the river’s edge, sprawling between rank riverside jungle and the pastureland along the coast. It’s buildings and houses appeared to be made of stone, and many had thatched roofs. The place looked like her own town used to look. These people hadn’t had to abandon their winding, above ground town or the roomy pastures and ranches surrounding it. Long stone barns atop the rocky hillocks still had little dots of horses or cattle moving into them at day’s end.
There was a distant sorrow in Catalina’s husky voice. “It looks like home,” she said, remembering the way Crocodile used to be.
Temoc chuckled, but his tone held a similar wistfulness. “It is home. Hasn’t changed much.”
Catalina and Temoc walked the dark mares along the shore by the docks, allowing them to stretch their legs after four days standing, slinged in the hold. Both warriors found their gazes fixed upon the bushes around them, though every evidence assured them it was a safe land. Catalina made it a point to enjoy the purple-clouded, fiery sunset as it faded over the town of Verde, the smoke from it’s many chimneys tinted violet in the fading brilliance. “There’s no way we’re going to find a ranch now,” she noted.
“The harbor has plenty of inns,” Temoc said, his tone matter-of-fact.
Catalina turned to him. “Maybe so, but I don’t have plenty of money. Hardly any left. What about you?”
Temoc shook his head. “I didn’t earn much. I could buy us a meal though, I’m sure.”
“I’d rather have a roof over our heads,” Catalina said darkly, looking over her shoulder to Lily. “And over theirs.”
Temoc shrugged. “They’re used to being outside, and so are we. Why worry about it now, when we’re safe?”
Catalina shot him a glare. “In towns, people can steal horses.”
There was a rustling of the bushes and both jumped, hands on their swords half-drawn. Their looks of relief was noticeable when a man appeared from the little dune-path, arms stretched in a gesture of defenselessness. “No need to be so jumpy, looks pretty safe here.” It was Wayland.
Temoc and Catalina glanced at each other, their relief fading.
“Couldn’t help but overhear your converversation,” Wayland grinned. “It just so happens that I have lots of money left, and will gladly help two fellows in need. If the inn isn’t too expensive,” he added.
Temoc shook his head. “We don’t want to be in your debt.”
“No no no I insist. No need to repay me,” Wayland was adamant.
Catalina spoke softly near Temoc’s ear. “I’m not sure we have much of a choice.” She turned to Wayland, speaking carefully. “Alright. You help us put the horses up for the night, but we’re paying for our own room. I’m not sleeping with you.”
Wayland grinned. “Awe, come on! We shared quarters between dragons for months.”
Catalina crossed her arms. “We’re not between dragons now, or crammed onto a longship. We’re sleeping separately.”
Wayland concealed his disappointment. It wasn’t like he’d have a chance with her anyway, with Temoc in the room too.
The three ambled through emptying streets, the horses’ hooves clacking against the cobbles. Only a few people coming and going from the harbor moved on the streets, and soon Lily and Greta were safely stabled while Temoc and Catalina ate a modest meal in the commons room of a stone-and-adobe inn. Wayland was enjoying a drink at the bar a ways away. He’d had to pick the cheapest inn they could find. The stable was cramped, there was a large water-stain on the ceiling of their room, and the fish tasted very fishy. Shady-looking customers lurked in the corners and whispered, watching them.
Catalina leaned close to Temoc, keeping her voice low. “I don’t like the looks of this place.”
Temoc followed her furtive glances, the hungry glints in the strangers’ eyes. Surely, this was no place for a lady. But this woman had fought far worse foes than shady men. He gave a conceding nod, then said, “Can any of them really hurt you, though?”
Catalina shrugged. “Maybe, without my sword.” She was beginning to regret leaving it in their room. Fighting dragons was not the same as fighting people, and duels between warriors were always respectful, carefully executed.
Temoc grunted. “If you need me, I’ll hear.”
Catalina nodded, making an effort to breathe easier. Just then a hand smeared something cold and vaguely slimy across her shoulders. She stiffened in surprised shock. Wayland didn’t have time to finish his snigger- Catalina shoved her chair backwards, pushing him down and spilling the remainder of his drink, bristling as she whirled around.
Wayland sat on the floor, the chair over his lap. “So touchy,” Wayland protested, pushing the chair away and dusting himself off.
“Don’t push your luck,” Catalina growled, righting the chair and turning her back on him again to sit down. Wayland pulled up a chair and joined them at the table with a smile, unphased by her hostility. Catalina looked at Temoc, rolling her eyes. Temoc smiled. Untrustworthy men wouldn’t give her any trouble.
As soon as they finished eating, they split up to ask about horse ranches, reasoning that Wayland would only be able to follow one of them.
“. . .Going to stay a little while, then?” asked the weathered, vested man with whom Temoc conversed.
“We have two mares who need a home,” Temoc replied.
The other man studied him thoughtfully. Of all the warriors that came to Verde’s shores, this one’s coat had the most patches and stains he’d ever seen. Word was the Overland had gone through hell to get here, and that would be the only reason he could think of that a warrior would have a horse. And, this one looked familiar. “Wait. . . are you Temoc?” he guessed. At an affirming nod, the man gave him a hearty welcome home, slapping him on the back with an embrace.
When Temoc reunited with Catalina, they had lost Wayland. “There’s a ranch half a day’s travel out,” Temoc said.
“The good news is, we, or I, will have a place to stay while we’re here,” Catalina said. “Guards passing through are paid to live with and watch over animals through the night.”
Despite paying a little more for a larger room, it still had only one shabby bed, and come nightfall they looked at one another awkwardly. “I’ll sleep on the floor,” Temoc volunteered.
Catalina shook her head. “Healing bodies get the most comfortable spot. I’ve been sleeping on stone floors for a long time. I can do it here, too.”
Temoc cocked his head amiably. “I’m not sure the bed would actually be more comfortable, but at least I don’t have to share it with Wayland.”
The following morning, they watched with amusement as a discussion between Wayland and several sailors became animated, when he declared his intention to travel to the Anaconda River.
One sailor snorted. “Getting hard to find ships going that way.”
“You’ll be lucky if you don’t have to wait out the wet-season here,” said another.
“Really? It’s not that rainainy yet,” Wayland protested.
“Let me put it this way,” said the first seafarer. “You’d be better off stuck here than adrift at sea, if a storm comes up and blows the ship off course.”
“You don’t follow the charts exactly, and Yacumama will swallow you up,” the third man added, with a dramatic sweep of his hands.
Wayland tried not to snort, but his disbelief was noticed in any case.
“My brother saw her,” said the second sailor emphatically. “They were almost there, and she opened her mouth under the water.” He made a dramatic gesture, opening both arms before him. “Almost capsized the ship, and sucked up nearly everyone who fell into the sea.”
“Yacumama?” Catalina wanted to know, as she and Temoc led the two mares out of town, toward one of the distant long-barns that stood atop the low hillocks.
“A sea monster,” Temoc said, “Like a great river serpent, only bigger. She sucks anything up that comes near enough.”
“There’s lots of things living in the seaweed jungles, but is there really a sea monster?” Catalina said with doubt.
Temoc shrugged. “I’ve never been to the Anaconda before, but I know the sea is treacherous, very shallow with underwater ridges, eddies, and tangles of seaweeds. I suppose there could be something really big living there.”
“Or, it could just be a dangerous ocean,” Catalina added.
“Used to think that. And then I started having to fight poisonous dragons every night. Who knows what else is living here we don’t know about?” Temoc pointed out.
A gentle breeze blew in from the Gulf, warm and salty. The houses were thinning out, town giving way to homesteads and garden-farms, the crops well sprouted and healthy looking. The smell of the sandy earth rose to meet them, of moist fertility baking in the hot sun of late morning. This coast had been getting rain for a good while longer than the desert town at the base of the Narrow Mountain from which they’d come.
It was mid afternoon when a knock came on the door of the stablemaster’s luxurious little cottage. Afranio rose from his desk to answer the call.
“Two warriors have arrived, sir,” the messenger reported.
“And?” The stablemaster sounded annoyed. Warriors came and went all the time, and usually only bothered to contact him for pay, as they went.
“They have two horses to sell,” the messenger said.
Afranio’s annoyance gave way to curiosity. “Warriors with horses? Tell them I’ll be along.” Afranio waved the messenger away, and returned to his desk.
“We’re selling Greta right away, but we should keep Lily a little longer,” Catalina told Temoc. “She’ll come in season again soon, or not. If it turns out she’s in foal, we can sell her for more.”
“Will it be worth it to keep her for that many extra days?” Temoc wondered.
“Sure would be nice to ride back into town tomorrow, when we go find your family,” Catalina pointed out.
“You coming with me?” Temoc wanted to know. “Not sure one little mare should carry two riders.”
Catalina shrugged. “Can’t be more weight than she carried over the Mountain. Or we could take turns.”
The stablemaster soon arrived, looking over the two dark mares with a critical eye while Catalina explained the virtues of dragon-tamed horses and the reason for sale.
“You took brood mares Overland?” he wrinkled his brow at the two warriors.
“Wasn’t our idea,” Temoc said, arms crossed.
“They don’t look any the worse for wear,” Afranio mused. The big one had a rough scar on her rump, half-hidden under sleek hair. He’d seen uglier, though, and her gait was still smooth.
Temoc stood by as Catalina and the stablemaster haggled. Catalina drove a hard bargain, but eventually Afranio gave in, paying a high price for the big mare. He wanted to take the little one as well, before she knew how much Lily was worth, but Catalina insisted he wait.
When the stablemaster had gone, they joined the circle of warriors to make nine, gathered in a ring outside the barn to duel. Steel clashed and rang while the evening’s meal was cooked on a stove built into the outer wall of the stone barn. Catalina was among the best, and Temoc’s fighting was weak. There were only two nightlong shifts, here. She got first, and he got second. Soon the herd came home, their two human attendants and a small pack of multicolored guard dogs in tow. Six mares and five foals traveling at a relaxed trot, one tawny stallion who circled his two new mares with interest.
Temoc and Catalina sat among those gathered at a rough adobe oven attached to the long outside wall of the barn, and a big boned, scar-faced warrior slapped his thighs with finality. “Guess I can get going, now some new blood has showed up,” he announced.
“We’re leaving again tomorrow, and I’d rather get stronger at duels before I take a shift at all,” Temoc said.
“Hmph. Guess I’ll stay, then,” the scarred one said.
“You want to get paid and fed, you have to actually do some guarding,” a tall woman told Temoc.
“Relax,” a lean man smiled, with chipped teeth. “They almost never show up, and I don’t think anyone’s actually had to fight, just before dawn.”
“What about in the day?” Catalina wanted to know.
The elder stablehand shook his head. “Never seen devourers come while it’s light.”
Catalina nodded. “I can help with the horses during the days too; I grew up on a cattle ranch.”
The stalls were roomy enough that mares and young foals stabled together, with one side of the barn mostly empty. Soft, content horsey sounds punctuated the muted air within. Just after dinner, half the guards were climbing into the loft to take sleep. Catalina breathed in the earthy, rich smell of horses, hay, musty cold stone. Her heart stirred. The place where she grew up was one like this. A big, stone shelter where contented animals stayed nights and weathered out the monsoons; cattle and a few horses coexisting with their human tenders and guarding dogs. The place of her past was long gone now, it’s occupants eaten and structures standing abandoned, as the jungle’s green vines covered them from sight and memory. Catalina followed Temoc up the steep, ladder-like stair to set up her bedroll before taking her shift. They passed piles of hay and bales of other foodstuff on their way to the guards’ makeshift sleeping quarters at the center of the long, open space.
“So, going home tomorrow,” she said. Temoc nodded. “Where is home, from here?”
“On the river’s side of town,” Temoc told her. “But Maiara teaches children during the day. I’ll find her with them.”
Home, Catalina thought. For a moment, she wished it were that simple for her, that it was a place she could travel to. Where she could again mount up and ride with the wind, out to find the cattle in their pasture as she did when she was a girl. But that home was only a memory for her. Even the place where she’d been living in a town of caves was a world away, now. Across the Narrow Mountain.
Catalina and Temoc started for town as soon as they could, saddling Lily and loading her with their packs and bundled armors. They took turns riding and trotting beside her most of the time, but both were riding when they came to the edge of the bustling town, making their way among oxcarts, burros loaded with sticks, people in crowded open markets and horses carrying riders or pulling carriages.
Once in the heart of the tiny city, they both walked. Catalina longed to wander through the crowded markets, full of colorful cloths, good smells and cackling chickens in crates, but she held to the course as Temoc made his way towards the river. She could tell he was nervous, but couldn’t help enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Verde. People here wore no armor, and less clothing altogether than she was used to. Some had loose, flowing cloth to cover their skin, but a good number of them wore only skirts or loincloths, sometimes open-fronted vests. Catalina couldn’t help stare at some of the finer specimens, their red-tan skin shining in the bright day’s sun. She breathed deeply of a spicy scent that wafted from yet another alley market. “Ahh, normal life,” she said, opening her arms expansively.
“It’s strange,” Temoc’s tone was far away. “Like I’ve woken up from a two-year nightmare. . . Everything here looks the same.”
At the mouth of the next alley market sat a couple of beggars, their limbs disfigured and swollen with a parasitic disease. Catalina’s heart fell at the sight. “One thing about normal life I don’t miss; the diseases. Must really be a safe place if the cripples haven’t been eaten yet,” she said darkly.
“Still enough animals left to carry the parasites,” Temoc noted. “I might have to make myself some food arrows and go hunting.”
Temoc found the little schoolhouse easily, stone and adobe like so many other buildings. It was the same one where he learned, along with cousins, friends, and his love who now taught the next generation. A number of children were outside in the dusty yard, scampering about on a mid-day break. The teacher wasn’t with them. She must still be inside. Temoc leaned against the cold stone wall outside the door, his heart pounding, his breath held. He let it out, and swung around to step into the doorway. There was a young, brownish man, with short, closely curly hair. Temoc stared in dismay, his mouth open but lost for words.
“Can I help you?” the man asked, eyeing the gaping stranger.
Temoc shut his mouth, his heart pounding no less hard, mind racing with a thousand what ifs. “Where’s Maiara?” he managed.
The young teacher smiled. “She has endured one too many a bout with trachoma. She’s taken on another job to keep from the children’s eye infections, and losing more of her vision. She’s been working the nets and traps down at the river.”
Temoc breathed with relief, the fearful uncertainty lifting from him. He thanked the man and made haste, veering slightly for the briny side of the town’s shore-edge. Catalina followed silently behind, leading the horse.
By the time Temoc looked out on the wide flats of soft silt to the waders with nets in the tidal shallows, he was jittery with uncertainty. Wondering how well she could see, and if she would recognize him at all.
Several long docks spanned the clam-mucking flats, ending at the river’s shallow water. Only a few little boats were moored there; mostly it was lined with crab traps and places to hang nets. Temoc took the first one, walking down it with a nervous eye glancing to each woman at the traps, looking for Maiara. When he did not find her there, he sat down to step into the water, trudging at thigh-height out toward a group of people in wide straw hats who were dragging a net through the shallow water. None of these were she, and he finally thought of asking. A woman pointed upriver, and he pulled himself through the water with determination, toward the next group of netters.
These were gathering their flopping, silvery catches into the sacks that trailed in the water behind them, while their fish-drivers circled back upstream, long poles over their shoulders.
When he saw her along the middle of the net, he knew for sure. The way she moved. Her slight, frail shoulders and round bottom. The way the sun got tangled in the wiry curves of dark hair bound behind her. “Maiara!” he called, trudging hard through the gradually deepening water.
The voice that called her name was undeniably familiar, and Maiara’s heart jumped, pounding. She let go the net and turned around, squinting at the blurry man rushing toward her in water’s slow motion with a fluttering in her chest. “Cuauhtemoc, is that you?” she breathed, moving to meet him. They came splashing together into a tight embrace.
Maiara finally let him go, holding him by the shoulders at arm’s length as Catalina caught up. She gazed at him with clouded eyes, her lashes curled under. “It’s a miracle. . .” she breathed, her voice trembling.
Temoc lifted his blocky hand, gently caressing the rich bronze skin of her cheek. “Your beautiful eyes. . .” Their deep, soft brown was obscured with cloudy scarring. He sounded as if he were about to weep.
One of the fish-drivers had broken away from the group, and was headed their way. Maiara took Temoc’s hand in hers, lowering it from her face as the fish-driver approached, stocky and solidly built like Temoc, but a little shorter.
Temoc opened his arms in warm welcome. “Gerson! Once again, you have taken good care of her in my absence!”
Fish driver and netter-woman exchanged nervous glances, and Maiara blushed, looking down. She placed a hand on her belly, her tone growing morose. “Yes, very good care of me.”
Temoc’s heart sank, his voice became hollow. “You’re with his child.”
Maiara stared into Temoc’s eyes, tears forming in hers. When she spoke, her voice quavered. “I never expected you to come back from the dead, Temoc. Or back over the Mountain if you weren’t.”
Temoc’s face slowly reddened. He turned to the fish-driver beside her, who was still catching his breath.
There was a sloshing in the waist-high water, and Catalina gripped his shoulder from behind. “Don’t be stupid, Temoc.” Her husky voice an urgent whisper.
Gerson shook his head, holding his hands out in front of him. “I’m sorry, cousin. I never meant to steal your wife. . .”
Temoc’s tone was thick with anger. “But you did. And you can’t give her back now.” He shot a glare toward Maiara’s belly, then stared at Gerson a moment more, his breaths short. He landed a solid punch into Gerson’s jaw, and stormed away toward the shore, Catalina following.
Gerson stumbled backward, and Maiara caught him from falling. They watched Temoc go. Maiara sighed with relief. Gerson held his aching jaw, spit a drop of blood into the water. “That went well enough,” he stated.
Temoc was still flushed with anger when he unhitched Lily from the landward end of the dock and mounted up. He turned the little mare without so much as a glance to Catalina, and she grasped the reigns. “Where we going now?”
“Home,” Temoc growled. Catalina hoped that wasn’t a bad idea, but there was no getting back to the ranch this late in the day, and they couldn’t afford to stay at another inn. She trotted after him with tired determination.
The house of Temoc’s family was one of the little stone-and-rough-adobe abodes that stood crowded together on a narrow, sandy street, it’s tiny yard overhung with trees and crowded with fruit-bearing bushes and young vegetable plants. Vines wound up the side of the porch and walls, grasping at bamboo gutters that brought water into a large catch basin nestled against the house. A knot of banana plants, heavy with bunches, grew outside the tiny stable, and under them a compost heap was sprouting with discarded seeds. Hens scratched at it among vigorously growing squash seedlings, and a brown dog ran from the porch to bark as they stepped from the rutted street. People appeared from within to stare wide eyed at the surprise return, and Temoc was embraced with loud exclamation by his mother, a thick-bodied woman with grey streaking the long black hair tied up behind her. The anguish within Temoc faded a little at the warm welcome home, and he was made to tell his story over and over again, first to his mother and uncle, then to each group returning at day’s end as children and dogs ran underfoot. His own daughter, a girl of seven or so, sat on the ground before him, listening with full attention each time.
Even when Gerson and Maiara came home, and anger started to rise again in Temoc, his mother insisted he tell his story to them as well, as Catalina sat silently in a chair at the corner of a rickety wooden table, smelling the cooking of fish and maize and spicy sauce.
Dinner’s mood was celebratory as the family sat crowded around the table, with children eating on benches nearby. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was disturbed by the sullen looks and awkward silences between Temoc and his former wife.
Temoc’s mother once again tried to break the tension, indicating Catalina and speaking brightly. “So, this fine young woman you’ve brought home with you. Is she your intended?”
Temoc gave a vexed grunt, exchanged glances with Catalina.
“I’m his comrade,” she managed, but it sounded weak.
His mother smiled politely. “You must be very brave, tagging along home without knowing what he might find.”
The awkward silences continued, and Temoc rose as soon as he had finished, his muscles stiff from the long day’s travel. “Think I’ll go check on the horse,” he mumbled. He had no will to be among them right now, and no wont to find out who’s room he would be obliged to stay in. His own family possessed a pony, and he fed and watered the two beasts in the deepening evening, even though it had already been done. He swatted mosquitoes from their rumps, and his own legs, feeling vulnerable without his coat and leggings as the dark settled in around him.
Catalina came to find him, and it wasn’t long before she was swatting the hungry insects from her own arms. She remembered the disfigured beggars of the marketplaces with a shudder, and began putting on her armor.
Temoc gave her a quizzical look. “I doubt we’ll have to fight, in the middle of town.” He looked down the street, crowded with row-houses to it’s distant end, and shuddered at the thought of the carnage of a devourer’s invasion.
“Maybe not, but I’m getting eaten by bugs,” Catalina said. It seemed a strange thing to worry about again, after so long sleeping sealed up in caves and battling far more frightening creatures in the night. “I’ve been offered a room with some girls,” she told him as he too got into his armor. “They’re still trying to figure out where to put you.”
“I’ll stay here, save them the trouble. Tell them thanks, though.”
They turned when someone stepped into the stable doorway. “My long lost son has returned from the dead. There’s no way I’m leaving him to sleep in the barn.” Temoc’s mother put her hands on her hips.
Temoc spent the night in his old room, crowded with several teenage cousins, staring at the thin cloth netting that hung down over his bed, his mind racing. Safe from mosquitoes here, he had taken his coat off again.
Part of him was afraid; no-one kept watches, no-one even had armor except for Catalina and he. He reassured himself by the fact they were in the middle of town, and devourers went for animals first. If for some reason they didn’t stop at the farms and ranches, he would hear the distant screaming out the glassless window, maybe see the glow of flaming houses.
Temoc shuddered at the thought, and put on his armor again. Perhaps it would settle his mind enough to allow slumber, hot though it was. But still, sleep would not come. His closest companion had taken his wife. For months he’d been preparing himself for the possibility she wouldn’t be his. But, his own best friend had been the one who’d taken her. Anger and a sense of betrayal coursed through him, only strengthening as the night wore on. Still awake, staring at the thin cloth netting that hung around him, hot and uncomfortable, laying in bed with his crocodile armor, his heart in anguish.
There was a sullen, awkward undercurrent between the new arrival and his old wife and friend at the boisterous breakfast table, but everyone parted ways rapidly after that, leaving the older and younger generations to the house. It wasn’t long before even the children dispersed into the street in groups with neighbors. Temoc’s uncle bounced a baby on his knee as Ma did the washing up, and when the matriarch was finished, she approached the newcomers.
“Since everyone else has somewhere to be, do you mind getting the supplies for your own welcome home feast?” She didn’t wait for Temoc to reply before continuing. “Your horse will have to help you haul, cause even the pony has his work today, and there’s not enough feed in the barn for two mouths.” Mother placed a soft-leather coin purse in Temoc’s hand, and proceeded to recite the needed supplies.
Temoc’s mood was sullen, brooding as they perused this marketplace and the next. Catalina led Lily, a tightly-bound bale of hayfood and a large ham among the things on the mare’s back. The horses’ feed was cheap; the ham had cost nearly half of what Ma had given them. The sandy haired warrioress tried not to let Temoc’s anguish get to her, instead enjoying the sights, smells and feels of a busy city, the way it should be. She selected the best mangoes, ran her hands over the softest, most colorful fabrics while Temoc haggled over the season’s first dragonfruit. They could get many things easily, but went to market after market looking for slippery ginger. When they found it, they couldn’t get very much for the money that was left. Temoc held the little tubers in his hand, wrinkly from the season before.
“Think both the healing sisters grow here?” Catalina wondered.
“Probably,” Temoc said. “They’re weeds. Think we’ll need to find them?”
They exchanged an ominous glance, and Temoc tucked one of the little tubers into his own pocket for safekeeping.
When they got home Ma and her sister sorted through everything, admiring the quality of this, praising the quantity for price of that. Ma’s shoulders slumped in disappointment at the tiny bit of slippery ginger which they’d procured.
“This is all? There should be twice as much. Maybe more,” she bounced her hand up and down as if feeling their weight.
“That’s all we could get for what was left. And we had to visit lots of markets to find it,” Temoc said.
“You mean to tell me the price has more than doubled for something that grows everywhere?” His mother’s tone was incredulous. First it was meat they could barely afford, as it was increasingly sent away across the Gulf, and now this. . .
“It’s medicine, now,” Temoc said grimly.
Maiara was one of the first to come home this day, having had to excuse herself from the selling of their catch on account of feeling sick. Ma offered her a banana after she re emerged from the privy, and Temoc made sure he was somewhere else.
After awhile, Maiara went to sit on the porch in a sort of numbed daze. Her clouded vision settled on the reddish blurs that were hens, busily scratching the compost heap.
“I still have feelings for you, you know.” Temoc’s voice made her jump, then he stepped around the corner of the house to lean against the porch-rail near her, staring blankly toward a spot on the house’s stone. She opened her mouth to speak, but her heart fluttered nervously in her throat, and no words came.
“I have had no one else since you, even before–” he continued.
“Temoc, don’t.” She cut him off, choking with tears. “Just, stop.” She cast her blurry vision toward him, but couldn’t tell if he was looking back at her. A small movement told her that he was fidgeting.
After a long while, she was able to speak to him. “My heart broke for you once. When I heard what was happening in the heart of the Gulf. I feared you were dead, I hoped you were safe somewhere across the Mountain. I waited awhile, even though I knew there was no hope of your return. And now,” her voice quavered. “Now, my heart breaks again. Because I see you, and I know I never stopped loving you. . . and I’m torn. . . If I could take things back. . . if I could have you back. . . I would.”
Temoc’s clenched hand whitened as she cried. “Too late for that, now.” His voice was choked with emotion. He pushed away from the side rail and disappeared into the stable, leaving her to weep quietly where she was.
Catalina sat on her makeshift bed beside a window, looking out over the rambling town of Verde, it’s houses half-buried in the green of climbing vines and treetops. From here she could see the next house’s second story, people moving within. Smoke rose from stoves all around, carrying the wafting scents of the evening’s cooking. Fish, manioc, maize, clams. If she craned her neck and gazed very hard down the street, she could just glimpse the busy section of river markets where people sold their day’s catches and gatherings. It was clearing out now, even the latest heading home. She was vaguely aware of the furtive giggling of the girls as they entered their quarters.
The three young women gave her nervous glances, afraid she’d see them looking. A real live dragon-warrior, in their room. Just sitting. Wearing the shining black skin of the very monsters she fought, sitting on a bed of board and blanket they’d managed to scrape together.
“She’s so quiet,” whispered the frizzly haired girl in awe.
“Why’s she wearing her armor? You think she’s afraid?” asked the youngest.
“Does she know something we don’t?” the elder wondered with worry.
“I don’t know, maybe we should… ask her?” said the frizzly haired one. They erupted in soft giggling, each pushing the other toward her, each refusing the challenge.
Catalina remained unmoving, staring out the window. Eventually, curiosity got the better of them, and the eldest approached her. “Hello. . .”
Catalina looked, greeted her with a smile and a nod, her manner relaxed and friendly. Two girls hid behind the first, and giggled nervously again. None of them spoke right away. “Is something wrong?” she ventured.
They shook their heads vigorously, and the frizzly haired girl spoke. “Why are you staring out the window? Are you afraid something will come for us?” she managed.
Catalina chuckled, and looked again, wistfully. “I’m just. . . remembering what it was like to live in my own town, before. . .” her voice trailed off with a hint of sorrow. “It’s lovely here. So green.”
The girls giggled again. “That’s why they call it Verde,” the youngest said.
Catalina laughed. “I expect so. I hope it’s always this green and peaceful.”
More awkward glances among the girls, uncertain what to say next, then the smell of food found it’s way into their room from the kitchen below. “Hey, that smells like meat cooking,” said the eldest as they sniffed the air.
“Yeah,” the frizzle haired one agreed. Just then, a woman’s voice called, and two of them hastily excused themselves to help in the kitchen. Only the eldest was left, still uneasy with awe, but a bit more collected than they had been all together.
Catalina’s eyes fell on a colorful swatch of cloth hanging on the wall, an unfinished patchwork full of swirling patterns and bright dyes. “That’s lovely.”
“It’s going to be my skirt,” the girl said, blushing. “When it’s finished, I’ll be able to go courting.”
Catalina nodded. “Reminds me of one that I made, years ago. Fancier, though.”
“You know how to sew?” Genoveva asked.
Catalina laughed. “Of course. I’m pretty good at it, too.”
Genoveva looked at her feet. “I’m not very fast, or I’d have been finished by now,” she said sadly.
Catalina rose to examine the garment, bright and flaring, with a frilly layer or two begun. “It’s for dancing in, isn’t it?”
Genoveva nodded. “Supposed to have more frills. Um, I should probably go help cook now.”
Catalina nodded, and the girl hurried away. She soon followed. If they made half the things she’d helped buy that day, there was going to be quite a feast.
The evening’s celebration was extravagant and the food delicious, yet there still remained an undercurrent of tension, which was even worse at breakfast. As they were readying to leave for the day, Gerson approached his long lost friend with hopes of opening communication. “Cousin, it makes me happy that you are alive.” Temoc stayed silent, brooding. “Temoc, listen,” Gerson ventured again, “Maiara and I, we’ve–” But Temoc turned and stalked off before he could finish. “. . .talked about this.” He said to the empty air, his shoulders falling.
Catalina found Temoc sulking in the barn. He was grooming Lily, humming softly to the mare in an attempt to calm himself. He glanced her way when she sat down, and kept brushing the horse though the dark coat already shone.
“I’m sorry you had to see this,” he said after a long while. “I shouldn’t have let you come with me.”
Catalina shifted on the tiny bench. “It’s alright. I knew to expect the unexpected.”
Temoc gave a growling grunt. “Yeah, but why does she have to be expecting,” he fumed, anger reddening his neck again.
“Isn’t that the natural course of things, usually?”
Temoc only growled again in reply.
Maiara hung about the back yard, waiting for a turn in the outhouse. The lush, green space was so small, it was impossible not to hear the voices on the other side of the tiny stable’s glassless window. She gravitated toward it, leaning against it’s cool stone wall. She had known Temoc for many years. Knew the tone in his voice. They argued like they were in love.
“I’ve seen you at your best many times, Temoc,” Catalina was saying. “I think that means I’m obligated to know you through your worst. Otherwise, what kind of friend would I be to you?”
Maiara couldn’t see Temoc bow his head in silence. Couldn’t see his beaten expression or the tears threatening to escape the corners of his eyes. The outhouse door opened and she marched toward it, an unpleasant stirring in her breast.
Catalina stepped forward, gingerly put a hand on Temoc’s tense shoulder. He made no move, either to shrug away or look at her. She took a breath, and left him to himself in the tiny stable once more.
It wasn’t long before Catalina was eagerly accosted by Genoveva, the girl still a bit nervous as she asked the warrioress for help with her colorful and elaborate skirt. Once upstairs and working, the young woman began to relax a bit. They talked and giggled as they sorted through scraps of pretty cloth to add to the garment.
“All these are so beautiful, each one unique,” Catalina breathed, touching them gently.
“They’re just scraps,” Genoveva said. “They don’t cost much, cause they’re not big enough to use really. But they all add up to make something that money can’t buy.”
“A rite of passage,” Catalina mused.
Temoc left the house, along with most of it’s other occupants. He walked the streets of Verde, watching the people move without fear, visiting old familiar haunts and listening to snatches of conversation. Trying to distract himself from the pain within.
Back with the family that eve the tension was no less, but the silence between the old lovers was broken by Maiara. She looked across the table to the blurry forms of Temoc -she could have been completely blind and still known where he sat- and Catalina- the only fuzzy picture with light hair. “You say you’re comrades, friends,” she began with hesitation.
“We fought side by side to protect the people and animals over the Mountain,” Catalina volunteered, “Both in the day and in the long night’s shifts.”
“What do you mean, ‘side by side?’ Paired with each other?” Maiara prodded.
Catalina shrugged. “Not usually, but we were both near the front of the caravan, and both on second shift. Towards the end we were walking together to blaze the trail.”
“So you’ve spent a lot of time with him,” she cast her blurry glance in Temoc’s direction, then back to Catalina. “You two must know each other very well.” Though she tried to sound conversational, her tone was tinted with suspicion.
“Maiara, enough,” Temoc silenced her, speaking so suddenly she nearly jumped. He took a breath. He hadn’t meant to speak harshly. He continued, his voice quieter. “She’s done you no wrong, leave her be.” They fell back into silence. As the noise of other conversations picked up around the table, Maiara couldn’t help but feel something more had gone on between them. Otherwise, why would Temoc be defending her so fiercely now?
Catalina helped with the washing up after dinner, laughing with the girls she shared a room with. Temoc laid low, staying somewhere out of sight, out of the way of his raucous family. He still didn’t show up even after the dishes were done and people were settling in for the night, and they grew worried when they found his pack was gone. Ma feared that he had left the city, with no intention to return.
“Has anyone checked the stable yet?” Catalina wanted to know. Heads shook, and she breathed a little easier. That was probably where he was. “Then, I know there to start looking,” she said.
“If he isn’t there, I’ll help,” Gerson volunteered.
Catalina gave him a sidelong look. “No offense, but you’re probably the last person he wants out looking for him.”
Gerson shrugged with a grunt. “Too bad. I’ll know where he’s hiding, if he’s still in Verde.”
Catalina nodded and marched out the door, hoping he was among the horses, where she usually found him. It was dark inside, and she waited for her eyes to adjust. She could hear two horses, see their movements dimly. Temoc’s bow still hung on the wall beside her own, and as she grew used to the dimness, she scanned the tiny barn. His pack lay beside the pile of coarse hay, half buried. He was here. Somewhere. Catalina edged between their little, dark mare and the family’s chestnut pony, and a movement behind Lily’s far side turned her head. Temoc sat in a tiny space between mare and wall, his eyes glinted as he looked up at her.
“We’ve been wondering where you were,” Catalina told him, her black armor glinting in the deep dusk. “Your mother feared you’d gone.”
Temoc snorted. “Almost did. So what, if I had? I’m obviously not needed here.”
Catalina glared at him, a hand on her hip. “Of course you’re needed here. This is your family. They love you and they’re worried about you.” She edged behind the mare and sat down next to him, careful to keep her feet from under Lily’s hooves.
They sat together in silence for a time. Catalina became aware of Temoc’s steady eyes on her, and she turned to meet his gaze. He snatched her up in his arms, pressing her close, his hot breath at her neck. She gasped in surprise, struggled and pushed herself from his grip. Though she felt an undeniable spark within her, she couldn’t show it. Not now. “What are you thinking?” She scolded in a hissing whisper. Temoc returned to his former position, hugging his knees, staring straight ahead at the ground under Lily. Catalina took a breath, speaking kindly. “Look, it’s not that I don’t want you. But you have to get your heart straight, first. You’re not thinking right now, and you need to give yourself time.” She put a hand on his shoulder and peered, to see him take a slow breath and nod in acquiescence. After a time, she spoke again. “I’m going back, now that I’ve found you. Will you still be here tomorrow?”
She waited. It was too dark now to see him nod. Eventually, he spoke one word, a subdued, somewhat strangled, “Yes.”
Temoc breakfasted in haste this morn, rather than waiting around for awkward situations to rise. He left for the tending of the horses as soon as he could. After shoveling manure, he set about feeding and grooming. Catalina joined him, watching Lily with a careful eye.
Every time she glanced out the window, it seemed that Maiara happened to be in the yard, though she appeared to be paying them no attention. Just when Catalina began to wonder if she weren’t listening in on them, she was gone. Many of the house’s residents had left for their various tasks and pastimes, and Genoveva eagerly begged Catalina to help with her skirt again. Catalina obliged, happy to look at and feel the swatches of beautifully patterned cloth, and they made their way to up to the room.
Maiara heard the door open. She stiffened in fear, the contents of Catalina’s pack strewn all around her.
Catalina clenched her fists, her anger rising fast. She grabbed Maiara’s arm and pulled her to stand, the woman’s clouded eyes wide. “Find what you were looking for?” Catalina hissed.
Maiara’s fear deepened when she felt the strength of Catalina’s grip. Panicky, her eyes shifted around as if looking for an escape. She shook her head, unable to speak.
Catalina sat Maiara roughly on an empty bed, and Genoveva watched her as the warrioress checked and replaced her things. Nothing was missing. She threw the pack over her shoulder and hauled the petrified Maiara downstairs, the girl following in mortified curiosity.
Temoc’s older sister was still there; a stout woman just like their mother, though far less grey. Catalina thrust the trembling Maiara at her, letting her go with a rough shove. “Caught her going through my things. I wouldn’t have taken her for a thief, and nothing’s missing.”
Sis looked to Genoveva for confirmation, who nodded vigorously. The sharp-eyed woman put one hand on her hip, and stared at Maiara for a time. “I do believe the green eyed monster’s got you. Jealousy can make a person do so many stupid things, but do control yourself,” she scolded. She looked to Catalina, her tone apologetic. “If there’s anything we, or she, can do to make amends. . .”
Catalina grunted, still half-angry. “Doesn’t matter, I should be leaving anyway.” She gave a small bow to the older woman, thanking her for the family’s hospitality, and strode out the door.
The air was thick, muggy already. She moved with purpose, swiftly putting the saddle and bridle on Lily that they had borrowed from the ranch.
Temoc could tell she was upset. “What’s wrong?” he wanted to know.
Catalina stopped to look him in the eye. “Your wife,” she growled, “is just as jealous as you are. Either have each other back, or let each other go and move on.” She cinched Lily’s saddle-strap tight and the horse snorted in protest. “In the meantime, I’ll be back at the ranch. For awhile. If Lily comes in heat again, I don’t want that trouble in town.”
She was mounted and gone before Temoc could muster his thoughts to reply, trotting down the sandy street. He stared after her, watching Lily’s hooves kick up little puffs of dust. Children and dogs ran behind them for a little ways, and a cart crossed the street, obscuring them for a moment. Upset was mingled with hope as Temoc wondered what Maiara had done. She was jealous for him. Soon, only Catalina’s pale hair distinguished her from others in the distance, riding tall on the leggy steed. She wouldn’t be back, and he was certain she would sell the mare this time.
(copyright Melanie Degen)