It was later in the day than she realized. Light from the setting sun quickly resolved itself as a dull ache behind her eyes. A cool breeze blew in from the ocean, wicking the sweat from her brow and drying the blood on her neck. The city crowded around her. Long streets stretched out in front of her, covered in the fine dust tracked in from the plains. Most of it was probably dried horseshit.
And goatshit. lGoats clotted the streets, bleating and butting. Men in pointy hats had shouted and gesticulated at one another, tunics flapping around hairy arms. Flocks of shrieking children had chased one another up and down the avenue, each one pulling a gaudy paper kite. One old woman had been dressed in striped furs that hung so loosely Botia could see the withered teats beneath. Above, silk flags beat at the air with their fists.
This was the city of Talakesh, and it was the most foreign place that Botia had ever seen. All around her, the chatter of an unknown tongue bubbled up and receded, none of it comprehendable. How long had it been since she had talked to someone? How long before she forgot how to speak? Was that even possible? Botia shivered under her blanket.
She was riding a giant caterpillar. He hands were tied behind her back, but the creature was broad and slow. It wasn't hard to balance atop the peristaltic undulations. All around her, dirt-yellow buildings loomed. They looked like they had been dug out of the earth. Between the crumbling yellow facades of the ancient buildings were the modern ones, flat-roofed and wooden. A small sheep burst out of one of the muddy huts and began barking at the caterpillar. Not a sheep--a dog. The owner followed after, restrained the dog, and muttered a few words with a bow. The caterpillar nodded back. Was that an apology?
They were moving towards the edgs of the city. There were fewer stone buildings and more wooden ones. Fewer flags snapped the air. A quartet of riders approached and parted, with two of them passing on each side of her mount. Their craggy faces were framed by braided hair, and clusters of rabbit paws decorated their saddlebags. An unhooded falcon rode of one of the men's shoulder.
The caterpillar undulated onwards. Away from the vertical walls of the downtown, the wooden buildings grew squat and round. Hide tents appears, and clusters of pine trees. Another horse trotted on past. It had had no rider. Botia began to pick at her bindings. It was a good knot, but given enough time, even good knots can be undone. And she was sure she could outrun the worm.
She was eventually carried past the last buildings. There was nothing out here, only endless plains and bonneted farmers carrying dusty vegetables to market. Amber fields of grass waved at her like an ocean, unbroken except for where lines of small, dark trees followed the path of a stream.
Behind her, the sun crawled beneath the horizon and died. It was getting cold.
"There's water and cheese in my satchel, if you are hungry." The worm said, in clear gospeltongue. Botia had no idea what to say back, so she laughed instead.
After a moment, she managed to croak out a "thank you". Her throat still hurt tremendously. She didn't even like cheese. Or at least, she'd never really enjoyed the stuff. But cheese sounded wonderful right now. She had been hungry for weeks, it seemed. A question circled twice around her mind before it escaped through her mouth.
"Are you going to eat me?" she asked it.
"No," was the creature's reply. It had spoken with neither hesitation nor urgency. Botia almost believed it.
"Where are you taking me?" Botia shifted in her seat. The writhing back of the caterpillar had been more comfortable before it had started answering questions.
"Home," it said, "to be my servant. And maybe my friend, I hope."
Botia barked a laugh at the caterpillar's guilelessness and naivete. It was delusional or idiotic. It was a crazy giant caterpillar heading out into the wasteland, and it was holding on to the rope that bound her hands. Botia snorted another laugh, this time at her situation.
She reached for the promised food in the satchel. The pocket on the left was empty, and she quickly discovered that she was unable to open the buckle on the right one--her wrists were tied in an X, facing each other, and the couldn't manoeuver her arms around the caterpillar's bulk without falling off.
"I can't reach the food," she said, not caring if the thing heard the petulance in her voice.
The caterpillar didn't stop walking, but its smooth torso twisted so that its head was facing her. She could see the outline of the moon reflected off the carapace of its face. She was so close that she could even make out the tiny ridges in the surface. Where were its eyes? Then the caterpillar clacked its mandibles together rhythmically, the same way a man drums his fingers on a table when he is thinking.
"Dismount," it finally said, "and I will help you."
But the caterpillar hadn't considered the effect its idle jaw-clacking might have on the girl. Botia was once again seized with visions of those thick, sideways jaws descending around her head and crushing her skull like an eggshell.
"No, no, that's fine. I'm not hungry," she stuttered. "Not really."
"It's no bother. Let me untie you," insisted the caterpillar.
"Okay. I mean, if you don't mind." (steal a horse, ride to harbor, sell for passage, get passage on a ship)
And so she jumped to the bitter ground of the steppe. Its gaze followed her as she walked around to its front. It arched its back and stepped forward. Botia watched sand push out from under its bulk, bunching up around the yellow buttons of its feet. She saw that the end of her rope was tucked under the loop of its satchel. Perhaps it had been unsecured the whole journey. Its fat arms moved with surprising coordination. Its four thumbs were covered in thick pads, like the bottom of a dog's foot. One thumb on each hand had a blunt sort of spike on it, and it used this to hook under the rope and and coil it.
"Turn around, please." It's voice was distant and wet, like a man drowning at the bottom of a well. She obliged.
She could feel its yellow hands rotating her wrists and moving smoothly over the knot. It lifted the blanket from her shoulders, probably because it kept falling over the knot. Despite being good at coiling rope, the creature seemed to have some trouble untying the knot. She could feel its breath on her shoulders. It smelt sweet and grassy.
Botia was just beginning to shiver when the last loop fell from the knot. Botia turned around in time to see the caterpillar give a very human nod of completion. It overed her the blanket back. "Aren't you cold?" Botia asked, as the the pulled the blanket around her.
"Very rarely. Would you please hold the rope?"
"Sure." Why not.
Once more on its back, she looked behind her. It was dark. She wondered if they had gone in a straight line. She wondered how fast this thing could run. She wondered how much colder it was going to get tonight and if giant caterpillars could be strangled with a rope. She did not like a single one of the answers her mind provided.
"What kind of work am I going to do? At your house." She finally asked.
"Your work would include cooking, cleaning, and helping me with whatever else I need," it answered. "What do servants do where you come from?"
"Same things," she sighed and looked at the horizon. She could hear a river out there, and people lived near rivers.
"What is your name?" it asked, unexpectedly.
It seemed to think this over for a bit, and then it volunteered, "My name is Lin. You should not have hurt Poro, I think."
"I'd hurt him a lot worse if I could," Botia bit back.
"Violence hurts even those that practice it. I hope you will not not be violent within my household," said the caterpillar.
"Then don't give me any reason to be."
The worm made a strange hooting noise. "And I thought I was buying a slave! I suppose I was warned about wheylanders."
Botia didn't respond. Her mouth was full of delicious goat cheese. Enormous clusters of pampas grass passed her in the twilight. Even from atop the worm, they still towered over her. Botia wondered how the creature was navigating. How Lin was navigating.
It spoke up again. "Your accent seems familiar. Are you from Truaga?"
Botia swallowed the goat cheese and said, "Yes. I live in Vemic."
The worm hmmed. Somewhere a coyote howled.
Botia hesitated before asking, "How do you know what a Truagan accent sounds like?"
"Rashaun is also Truagan. He's my brother, of sorts," said Lin.
When the caterpillar didn't continue, Botia asked, "What do you mean?"
"He's at the campsite. You'll be able to meet him shortly. It will gladden him to have someone to talk to." Lin seemed hesitate a moment, and then said, "He's about your age."
"You still didn't answer how--," Botia began.
"Rashaun's mother was my nurse," Lin said. Its clumsy voice was speaking slowly and carefully, now. "And I apologize. I should have realized that you were a foreigner and do not know our ways. When you asked what I would require of you, I was not entirely honest."
A few feet ahead of the worm's trampling feet, a rabbit-sized animal suddenly bolted into the scrubland. It kicked up a billow of dirt that drifted into them unexpectedly. A measure of it got into Botia's eyes, making them choke and water. Her vision of the desert blurred.