Rabbitheart – Part 2

Miss Part 1? Click here to go back and read Part 1 of Nicole Tanquary’s novella Rabbitheart

The silence was what woke me up.

I had gotten used to sleeping with my thirty-or-so roommates over the years. A lot of them snored. Almost all of them tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable spot on their mattresses (me included) … but even if every other noise was taken away, you could still hear thirty mouths breathing in, breathing out, filling the shack with warm, heavy air. Sometimes I thought I could even hear their hearts beating.

I blinked my eyes, disoriented. For a moment I thought that someone had stuffed poison into our room, and every women besides me had breathed it in and died – I couldn’t hear anyone, not even the snorers. Even more surprising was that there was no Gut standing over my head, banging on his piece of metal loud enough to raise the dead. No Gut yelling that we were behind in our quota. No Gut getting us out of bed for another day of work. So why had I woken?

“Gut?” I mumbled. I tried raising a hand to scrub at my eyes, but found that I couldn’t. They had been tied together with some heavy, greenish rope.

Then I remembered the blue eyes in the bush. The run. The cliff …

“So. You’re awake.” I rolled over to find the vie … the not-vie, I corrected myself, remembering the words that had been said just before I blacked out … sitting cross-legged in front of a yellow tree. The tree’s branches stretched above us to make a sort of makeshift ceiling. Curtains of shimmery green leaves hung off to my left, like the walls of a room. We were alone.

I dug my fingers into the loam beneath me, staring at the not-vie, not daring to blink. He had cleaned himself up while I was unconscious. He had changed his clothing, and his blue-black hair was combed and tied back. I felt a fierce pleasure when I saw that bandages had been wrapped around where I had bitten him. “It still hurts, you know,” he said, noticing my gaze. “You kept at it, even when I said we weren’t going to hurt you. The vie just want to ask you some questions, about the Ventine you’ve stolen. That’s all. So how come you bit me?”

My lip curled back in a silent snarl. He didn’t move, but stared coolly back, his head tilted to one side. I got the sense that he was studying me, in the same way I had been studying him.

Then I finally noticed Spiderhands. He lay on the ground a foot away from me, curled on his side. His wrists were bound, like mine, his long, stretched fingers balled into fists on the grass. I could see a spot of blood on his temple.

Finding my ankles unbound, I crawled to him and examined the spot. It looked as if something heavy had hit him. “Spiderhands, what happened? You were going to get away,” I whispered. Then I turned on the not-vie. “What did you do to him?” I spat.

“Calm down. He’s not dead,” said the not-vie, who’s name, I finally remembered, was Tan. He brushed blue-black hair out of his eyes. “When we got you under control, he came crawling back up the cliff, to save you, I guess. We didn’t know he was there; we figured he had fallen all the way down. Anyways, he grabbed my ankle and pulled me over the edge. You thieves are stronger than you look, as it turns out. Luckily, being what I am, I didn’t get hurt in the fall. Though I’m thinking you would’ve liked to have seen me die.” Tan smiled, and a shrug rolled through his shoulders. “The others didn’t like that I was attacked, of course. They got a hold of him and punched him out … poor guy. He’s gonna have one hell of a headache when he wakes up.”

“I’ll give you a frickin’ headache,” I shouted, and pushed myself to my feet. In an instant an arm was around my neck, in the same hold Tan had used on me. Except, this arm was much larger. I was forced to stand on my tiptoes to avoid hanging myself. A guard? I wondered.

Tan heaved himself up. “I know the vie have been anxious to go ahead with the interrogation. Since one of the thieves is awake, I think we can start. The other one will wake up eventually, right? And you,” he said, addressing me directly now. “It’d be a real hassle to have to carry you all the way to the meeting chamber. I’d rather you walk yourself there. So I don’t really want to have to tie your ankles together. However, if I need to, I will. Understand?”

The not-vie guard who had grabbed me eased off my windpipe, but didn’t take his arm away until I gasped out, “Fine.” Tan nodded his approval. Then he moved to where the unconscious Spiderhands lay and, in a fluent motion, slung him over one shoulder.

Fingers like sausages clapped down on my own shoulders, and began to steer me in the direction of the leaf curtain wall. A moment later I was pushed through.

It was still night outside – we hadn’t been unconscious for too long, then – but somehow the clearing seemed very bright, alive with motion and glittering skin. There were others like Tan, black-haired people with blue tints, though some hair was closer to the shades I was used to. None seemed to be older than twenty. Their movements were sure and strong, and their voices somehow fresh, like sap. I thought of some of the women in my room … old, wrinkled faces, joints destroyed by labor … and turned away, keeping my eyes fixed on the ground beneath my feet.

Besides that, none of the not-vie wore shirts – not even the women, which there were plenty of, smiling and laughing as I passed. I felt myself sweating inside my miner’s uniform.

There were others besides the not-vie around. Though I didn’t look up from my feet, I could feel them grow silent as I passed. Maybe it’s because I smell so bad, a part of me thought, and in my head I let out a bitter laugh.

The hands on my shoulders turned me about, and suddenly we were walking to the right, beneath a stand of trees. Here, the branches wove tightly into one another, and the sky was blocked out. Tree roots thick as peoples’ bodies cut through the ground, curling to arch well above my head, to make a room of living timber.

It was on the roots that the vie sat.

The not-vie guard pushed me onto my knees. Tan lay Spiderhands beside me, but I almost didn’t notice, staring up at the vie … their eyes were a clean kind of blue, like the sky on a cold day in autumn. Their lips were thin, their nostrils slitted. Their bodies were wrapped in gorgeous lengths of cloth, black with splashes of dye stained into patterns of forests and flowers. Their blue hair was long, reaching to their waists. Their skin gleamed with the purest Ventine colors.

Finally I tore my eyes away, looking helplessly around the clearing. I could see Tan had gone to sit with a crowd of not-vie (who, I realized now, looked a bit like humans crossed with vie). I was aware of not-vie guards standing behind me. No hope for escaping, then.

Spiderhands let out a groan. I bent over his body, squinting in order to see his face. His eyes were half-open, but I remembered what Tan had said. Maybe his head still hurt too much to move. I had the urge to raise my hand and stroke his hair, to tell him that things were going to be all right … but my hands were bound too tightly together to move like I wanted.

The vie who sat on the middle bulge of the root, apparently the leader, inclined her head at the not-vie who had gathered. “Thank you, Tan, for capturing these two. The fact that you were forced to put them down is regrettable – however, based on your report, necessary.” Her voice was light, the words spoken at the very tip of her tongue, so that they seemed almost slippery. Her eyes turned on me, her mouth twisting. “I would not have thought that two thieves would fight back so fiercely. Considering their trade, I would have guessed that they would surrender quickly, avoiding bodily harm, if they could. To live to steal another day is the thieves’ way, is it not?” Her smile was thin, and twisted.

I felt myself getting angry. “Would you people quit calling us that? We’re NOT thieves!” I shouted up at her. The vie to either side of the leader flinched at my shout. She, however, merely narrowed her eyes a fraction.

“Oh? Then what are you?” I lowered my gaze. I was upset to find that my bottom lip was trembling.

“What does it matter? You’re just going to eat us anyways. So if you don’t mind, just roast me and Spiderhands and get it over with. Neither of us like playing games.”

“What? … who told you that we eat humans?” said the vie, sharply. But I didn’t want to answer. The situation was too much. I just wanted to be in bed, asleep, breathing in time with my roommates. Instead, I had dragged Spiderhands out into the woods, even though everyone said that we would be caught and eaten. And now we were caught.

“And even if we get away, Mama Salli’ll know where we’ve been. We can’t sneak back to the camps without the supervisors noticing. Damn, why didn’t I think of that before?” I whispered to myself, not aware that I was speaking aloud. I let out a moan, putting my head in my hands. “We’re dead, we’re dead, we’re dead …”

I heard someone clear his throat. “Mestra, if you’ll allow me to speak …” The woman vie allowed Tan a slight nod. He stood, one arm crossed against his bare chest, in something like a salute. “I have told these two several times that we wouldn’t hurt them, but they don’t believe us. Who would, after all, believe the words of suspected cannibals?” His eyes flickered in my direction for a moment before returning to Mestra. “I’m beginning to suspect that neither of the thieves will speak to us at all unless we offer something in return.”

Mestra pursed her thin lips together, thoughtful. “Thank you, Tan. Your observation is duly noted. Please be seated.” She waited until he had settled back into the grass before she addressed me. “Well, girl? What say you?”

“… all you want is information?” I said, staring up at her. “That’s it?”

“Yes. That’s it,” said Mestra. It was hard to tell in the dark, but I thought I saw a smile, a kinder one than before.

Wind rustled against the branches above us, and a papery shower of leaves came tumbling down. One fell in Spiderhands’ hair. I brushed it away with the knuckles of my bound hands, then continued to stare down at his head. His eyes had closed again, clenched with pain.

“Fine, then. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know,” I started. My throat felt suddenly dry. I licked my lips before continuing. “In return, you promise to let us go, unharmed. And … and you also promise to get us home.”

“What, you mean, back to the other thieves?” asked a vie sitting at Mestra’s side. I shook my head.

“No. I mean back to where we grew up, where we lived before we were caught by Mama Salli … Madame Salinium, I mean.” The vie were murmuring amongst themselves, trying to make sense out of what I was saying. I knew that I wasn’t being very clear, but I couldn’t help it. It was like I was listening to myself from far away.

“So, you were kidnapped? Forced into stealing from our blue hills?” Mestra pressed. Her bluish eyebrows were turned in a narrow frown. I did not answer, which was as good as saying ‘yes’.

I watched her consider my request. My heart hammered in my chest. Wait a second. Does this … does this mean I actually have a chance to go home? After all this time? It was too good to be true, surely. Maybe they would just eat us as soon as I was done telling them what I knew. Still, I thought, glumly. It’s not like I have much of a choice.

“Your price is reasonable,” Mestra said at last. Her gaze turned to either side of her, at the vie sitting crosslegged on the roots. “Do we all agree to it?” The other vie made little murmurs of consent. My heart leaped into my throat, fast as a rabbit’s pulse.

Mestra folded her arms into the black cloth, regarding me steadily. “Now then. We wish to know everything we can about the operation you work for. Our allies,” she explained, gesturing a hand at the not-vie, “have been watching you and your fellows’ activities for quite some time now. They can walk in the shadows in the daytime, when even the shadows burn the skin of a vie. One of their number happened to overhear your plot to come back at night time. Upon hearing this report, we came to the conclusion that, if brought before us, you could prove to be a crucial source of information … Rabbitheart, I believe they said you were called.”

Just how much have these ‘allies’ overheard? I wondered. If they knew my name, they probably knew other stuff, too. They had probably listened to a lot of my conversations with Spiderhands. That made me angry. I had to swallow the anger before I could speak again.

“My name isn’t Rabbitheart. It’s …” I stopped, then let out a sigh. “Okay, so maybe I don’t remember anymore. But it isn’t Rabbitheart. That’s just the name that Madame Salinium gave me, ’cause she thinks I’m a coward. I’ve been around the Ventine for so long, I don’t remember my real name anymore. I don’t remember the way home, either. That’s why I need your help.”

All of a sudden, the words were pouring out of me, running so far ahead of my mind that I barely knew what I was saying. I told them about getting lost in the woods, following the Ventine path Madame Salinium had sprinkled, being captured in the camp. I told them of my daily routine, of the food and drink in the morning and the long day of work until dark fell. I told them of the stories – how the vie were savages that only came out at night, who ate people who wandered out of the camps.

For the most part, Mestra and the others kept silent, letting my mouth run its course. When I started to falter, they would ask a question that would get me going again. About the smiths’ camp, maybe, or the market caravans that carried the Ventine products into the cities.

When I mentioned how One was really good at finding Ventine gems, Mestra tensed, and asked me to tell more about her. “Well, One is sort of like the golden girl of the camp. She always finds the most Ventine, so Mama Salli really likes her. She says she can smell it, but I always thought she was just saying that, and that she really just came out at night to score some extra finds and get ahead of everyone else. That’s why I came out tonight, actually,” I said, blushing a little. “I thought it would be nice if I finally caught her. Then, maybe Mama Salli would let me go home, you know?”

“Describe this ‘One’ to me,” Mestra said. Her voice, which had been gently prodding before, was sharp. I hesitated, then, more slowly than I had spoken before, painted a picture for the vie leader.

Mestra closed her eyes for a moment. I could see the not-vie looking up at her, their chests tight, as if they were holding their breath. They know who One is? I wondered to myself. Mestra is sure acting like they’ve met before.

Finally, Mestra opened her eyes, her nostrils flaring as she looked down at me. “I thank you for opening your knowledge to us. We will do as promised, and help you to find your way home … your companion, as well.” As I had talked, the wince had gradually left Spiderhands’s face. Eventually he had sat up, and was now glowering down at the rope that bound his hands. “But, perhaps … perhaps you are entitled to know why the situation is what it is, and why the crimes that One and Madame Salinium have committed are so dire.”

Mestra took a moment to re-fold the cloth around her shoulders. Her face, I was surprised to see, looked all at once very old, and very sad. “We vie have lived long in these woods. We watched as humans built roads and houses and cut away the trees. In the beginning, all we did was watch; the humans were too few, too weak to be much of a threat, and we were willing to share what we had. We went to their leaders, however, and specified that several places were to be left alone; the blue hills, especially. Our wishes were honored. In those days, we were strong, and numbered several hundred thousand. Our villages stretched far throughout these woods. No one would dare to cross us.

“When we first encountered them, humans fascinated us. Sometimes, small children would lose their way, and we would take them in and raise them as our own, studying them as they grew and developed. We noticed, however, that if left unfixed, we had a negative effect on them. Something about our magic would gradually wipe away their memories. Upon realizing this, we were able to develop a way to correct it, a way that involves sucking the poison from their bodies. After this, our human allies grew in number. Roads brought travelers who had nowhere else to go, who fell in love with the woods, and, because our very blood comes from the woods, with us. Over time, these humans who lived with us built up their own resistances to our magic, and we no longer had to remove the poison ourselves. They evolved to become what you see today … not quite vie, but not quite human, either.” I glanced at Tan, who was studying the vie sitting above him, his face carefully blank of emotion.

“Then, something changed. We were aware that it was destined to happen one day – forests are not permanent, but are living things in themselves, and all living things eventually die – but something in the water, the air, changed. We were no longer the race we had been. Our people, who had once outlived many of the trees in this forest, died at younger and younger ages. The number of children dwindled. As time passed, we continued to fade away. And yet, we were, and still are, content to do so. Our deaths are part of the healthy process of rebirth in this world. From our bones, a new race will have opportunity to rise, as we had from an even older race, and as humans have from their ancestors.

“In our last hours, our allies have proved more than worthy of their status. They have cared for us, protected us, guarded our last few, precious years. Only one – who now calls herself, fittingly, ‘One’ – ever decided to leave us. And now we find that she has betrayed us, has disguised herself as a mere miner – and has now led this Madame Salinium past the safeguards on our blue hills. Do you know why we never touch the blue hills, miner?” demanded Mestra, all of a sudden. I blinked.

“Er … ’cause they’re sacred?” Mestra gave an angry shake of her head. All of the vie present had gotten angry, I saw. Beneath the black cloth, their bodies were shaking, clenching and unclenching with suppressed rage. Their teeth (which, I saw for the first time, were pointed) were bared. They looked ready to tear someone’s head off, I thought to myself. And hopefully it isn’t mine.

Mestra spoke through gritting teeth. “When a vie dies, we take them to the blue hills, and bury them in the ground. There, their bodies can decompose in the soil and be reborn. The material that remains eventually crystallizes into the gem your Madame Salinium thinks is so precious. The hills themselves are mounds, made when we began dying in greater numbers. In short … they are our burial grounds.”

I froze. A breeze blew through the clearing, ruffling the vies’ black clothing and blue hair, all the colors of darkness. The tree-trunk walls shivered, and I thought I could hear them moaning.

“So, you’re saying that … that we’ve been mining bodies, all this time?” said a voice beside me. Startled, I looked and saw that Spiderhands was staring up at the vie, his eyes a pair of hot flames in the dark. For a moment I thought I could see the Ventine poisoning in them – around the outer edge of the whites, the veins that were supposed to be red instead carried the faintest tint of blue.

Off to the side, the not-vie were stirring, standing and assembling themselves into rows. “Yes. You have been mining bodies.” Mestra rose slowly from her perch on the root, then leaped off and into open space, her blue skin gleaming as she landed on all fours beside us.

When she straightened, I could see that she stood taller than both me and Spiderhands put together. She was built like a tree, almost, with flowing black bark and blue hair for leaves. She re-folded her arms in the cloth, peering down at us. “I would like to apologize for judging you both so quickly,” she said. Her voice seemed no louder than a whisper. “We thought that you were taking the Ventine despite knowing of its origins. As it turns out, you knew very little of the truth at all.” The other vie landed beside her, then waited, as if expecting something.

Mestra turned towards them and raised her head. “The crimes committed by this Madame Salinium and her accomplice, One, are unforgivable. Now it is time to take a stand against them. This crime cannot go on any longer. Prepare quickly – we must fix this before morning. Grab what weapons you need, carry nothing that will slow you down. We will group together in the trees beyond the main entrance to the miner’s camp. You all know the place; we have spied on it many times.” The allies pressed their arms across their bare chests in a salute, then took off at a run. The vie followed them out of the clearing, their bare feet making no noise at all against the grass. Mestra watched them starting to leave. Her blue eyes seemed focused on something far away.

I scrambled to my feet. “Hey, what about-”

“You won’t be able to get in.”

As one, the remaining vie and not-vie stopped, then turned back towards where they had left us. Spiderhands stood on shaky legs, his bound hands swaying in front of him. He did not look at the vie. His voice … I had never heard it like that before. Like all the warmth in him had boiled away and he had gone all cold inside.

“What are you talking about?” said Mestra. Her eyes were narrow slits that moved first to Spiderhands, then to me, then back to Spiderhands.

Spiderhands shook his head a little. “You said that you’ve spied on us, but you didn’t mention something else you did; you sent a scouting party into the camps before, haven’t you? And weren’t they almost torn apart by the supervisors?”

Mestra said nothing. The air grew tense. Glancing over at the not-vie, all the muscles in their chests were bunched up. I wondered if someone was going to throw a knife at Spiderhands for accusing Mestra of being a liar. The not-vie seemed like the loyal-to-the-death type.

Spiderhands didn’t seem to notice. He just nodded to himself. “Yeah, okay, so I’m right. Anyways; the supervisors are stationed at the edge of every camp, both the smiths’ and miners’. There’s a few hundred of them altogether, and guess what? They’re tough. Madame Salinium’s human watchdogs. Something she made in her spare time fooling around with magic. At least, that’s according to the stories in camp. But there’s other kinds of wards she put up at the edge of the camps, too. Stuff designed to kill anyone who doesn’t work for her. Your search party I mentioned earlier, they got badly poisoned after they escaped the supervisors, right? Well, that was Mama Salli’s doing. Bet you didn’t know that.”

I stared at him. “Spiderhands, how do you know?” Spiderhands turned to me, and something of a smile came back to his face. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. He had been starting to scare me a little.

“Ritt is the supervisor assigned to my cabin. Sometimes at night I hear him talking to the others. He helps set up a lot of the wards, apparently. He was all excited that they had been triggered by a group of thieves. He said they smelled like the forest. So I guessed that he meant these guys, and didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Mestra tucked folds of blue hair behind her ears, not looking at either me or Spiderhands. “Very observant of you. And it is true – we have been having difficulties with the barriers. Otherwise, we would have attacked not long after this whole operation began.”

“In other words, you would’ve killed everyone given the chance, both supervisors and miners,” Spiderhands said. I glanced over at the not-vie and saw them bristling. Tan was even bearing his teeth, groping at his vine-belt like he had a weapon tucked away somewhere.

I grabbed Spiderhands’s shoulder and pulled him back a little. “It doesn’t matter now,” I said, raising my voice. “It doesn’t. Okay? So calm-”

“Rab, let me finish.” Spiderhands made as if to shove my hand off, but after a hesitation, took it in his own and squeezed. “I’m not accusing anyone here. I’m just saying what would’ve happened if they had gotten in. Only natural, right? If I were them, I would’ve done the same thing. Teach those stupid miners to mess with my ancestor’s graves.” He let out a laugh. “But those stupid miners didn’t know any better. And now that we do, we feel bad about it, Rab and I both. So how about this: we’ll help you take care of this barrier business, and then you can give Rab back her memories. We would’ve earned it by then.”

The vie and not-vie spectators began to mutter amongst themselves. I couldn’t tell if they liked the idea or not. They sure didn’t like the way Spiderhands was talking to Mestra. He’s going to get punched out again, isn’t he? I thought to myself.

Mestra folded her black robe more tightly around her, until she almost looked like the shadow of a tree, swaying in the wind. A branch above us moved, and a wash of silver moonlight light fell on her face. I thought I could see cracks around her eyes. Then I realized that they were wrinkles. Thin, deep ones that pinched the skin. How old is she? I wondered. She had said that vie could outlive trees, or that they had, before they started dying off. So … a hundred? Two hundred? I suddenly felt very small. I was glad Spiderhands was there with me.

“What, exactly, would you propose to do?” said Mestra.

Click here to continue on and read Part 3 of Nicole Tanquary’s novella Rabbitheart, or read Part 1, available here.

Nicole Tanquary is a young writer who is in love with fiction, especially “speculative” fiction; science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the various shades in between. Her most recent sales include a fantasy novelette, “Chasm,” to small e-publisher Darwin’s Evolutions, and a science fiction/horror story about zombies to Something Wicked Magazine. She lives in Syracuse, NY, and spends her days eating too much, exercising it off, drawing, painting, and, of course, writing.

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