Authors: Tam Linsey
Even cannibals have a code of honor...
TAKING THE KNIFE
Copyright 2012 by Tam
Cover art by Tam
All rights reserved. Published by Tam
This book is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
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The character of Armin is based upon my friend, Robert
Shafer, Jr. who has never eaten another human being. Or so he tells me.
TAKING THE KNIFE
lumps of towering
guarded either side of the trail, broad leaves limp and bronze-hued with the promise of winter, yet no less poisonous than the day they’d emerged as pointed shoots from the soil.
paused for breath, squinting ahead to where the footpath dropped sharply into the ravine the tribe had been paralleling across the
His entire twenty-six years of life he’d walked this route. Now he was reduced to using his spear as a walking stick. He was the tribe’s healer, but that meant little these days. A straggling mother and child had passed him some time ago, leaving him to bring up the rear. Even if he survived the Crossing’s roiling water, he would not reach camp until long after everyone had bedded down.
The tribe couldn’t linger, not even for the c8alspanir healer. Summer had been hard, with uneven rainfall and frequent
, and now the rival hunters had not come for the Autumn Trade. The Hunger would be long this year. He traced a finger over one of the raised scars along his jaw. Being marked as one of the
– a healer – might protect him from rival tribe attacks, but was not assurance of long life. For over a year, now, as his infirmity grew worse, he’d been training his replacement. His duty to the tribe – to take the Knife and offer
as food, as had been done for generations – was nearly upon him.
He trembled. Perhaps if he paused a moment, he'd find the strength to continue. Gently pushing aside a wide
leaf, he spotted the drop-off and an expanse of churning river. Ferny gray-green tamarisk trembled on the high bank. Near the cliff, where he might catch a hint of breeze off the water, rested a stone slab the perfect height to sit on.
He shuffled forward a step and tensed. A haphazard shelter of bruise-barked tamarisk logs rested near a spot of blackened earth where a fire had been.
His mouth turned dry. He should run.
At least back away.
Outside the trade times, hunters respected no tribal ties, and sometimes even ignored a healer's scars. He attempted to slide an unsteady foot back, but the fire in his spine locked his hips. Wobbling, he caught himself against the
. Dry stalks clattered and leaves rattled to the ground around him.
No sneaking away now.
After a few quivering, breathless moments, he swallowed his panic and dared turn his head to look around. The camp appeared to be abandoned. He heaved a sigh. Legs threatening to collapse beneath him, he edged toward the sitting stone, his gaze on the clearing in case anything of value had been left behind.
A small noise drew his attention as something moved against the
– a flash of brilliant green and the
His heart stopped, all thought of his pain forgotten. Flame
didn’t travel alone. He jerked his gaze to the cloudless, blue sky. The green-skinned people always arrived by air, torching the land and everything on it, edible or not – plant, animal, human. And then they left without gathering a thing, heedless of the waste.
He'd survived their raids twice. Once when he was six, by sheer luck and his quick, small feet
and again at twelve, when his brother thrust him off the butte into the Black Pool. His parents had been engulfed in the fire, and
been nearly paralyzed by a back injury. His aunt, the tribe's healer, had adopted them both, mended his spine, and kept away the Knife by teaching
her art and marking him with the raised keloid scars of a healer.
No escape this time.
For months he’d fought his duty to the Knife, each morning waking and struggling to his feet in spite of the
. Now flame
would take his duty from him. Guilt swamped him and he closed his eyes.
A waste of meat
Armin, the tribe leader, would send someone back to look for him – to gather his remains for the Flesh Feast. But in this heat, much would be wasted. Breathing deeply, he awaited the drift of grit or wafting breeze that preceded an incoming flying machine.
Moments passed. The air remained stagnant. Only the soft mutter of the river and the creaking of a nearby stand of tamarisk reached his ears. He opened his eyes, squinting in the sunlight. He'd never seen a flame
up close. Other than her green skin, she looked like any other woman. It was said they had once been human, and seeing her made him believe it true. Abrasions and dirt covered her from head to toe. Her cropped, black hair stood in tufts about her head. The small buds of her breasts hinted at new womanhood, nipples a startling pink against the small, green swells of flesh. Her black eyes seemed enormous in her bruised face.
Within his grasp.
He could have vengeance
feed the tribe – yet, curiosity made him hesitate. Why was she here, alone? The girl sat a few steps from the shelter, her knees to one side and her arms awkward behind her. She looked at him with huge, fearful eyes, but didn't move.
Hitching his breath against the pain, he lowered his spear toward her and shuffled forward. A braided rope was knotted about her wrists, its long line trailing between her and the wrist of a naked man beneath the shelter. The man's bearded pink face sagged in repose, a line of drool dripping down the bone labret in one corner of his mouth. His nose had been recently broken, but
knew him well.
." His brother. The brother who’d saved his life. The brother who'd turned hunter long ago. For years, they'd met only at the seasonal trade camp. Seeing him here, alone and vulnerable, caused
brow to furrow. "
He wanted to drop to his knees.
To hug his brother tight.
But his back kept him standing. Why was
here alone, naked? Where were the other hunters?
scanned the clearing again for men, but saw no one. With the butt of his spear, he prodded his brother’s foot.
"Keep the Peace."
The girl's high voice startled him, and he stumbled, thrashing against the
as he took a step back. The words were the truce exchanged between rival tribes in the face of a larger threat, usually incoming flame
She spoke his language?
Licking her scabbed lips, she shook her head. "Listen. I'm not a flame
. They took me. Did their magic to make me green. But I escaped." Her voice wavered, and he was struck by her frailty.
He nudged his brother again, harder this time.
had to be drunk. "Where's the
?" He scanned the area for a
or jar of the potent beverage.
"He's not drunk." The girl struggled to her knees. "I got the spirit healing."
That gained his full attention. Spirit healing was one of the lost skills. Not even his aunt had known the secret; the ability was a myth.
And a danger.
She's lying to save herself.
As if to see things clearer, he looked the girl up and down with narrowed eyes. Naked and green – that was hard to see past. But his healer instincts told another story. Scabs caked her knees and chin, one eye squinted from a brown and yellow bruise, and purple fingerprints spread across her thighs. She'd obviously been used hard.
His brother was impulsive, but this was baffling.
She wasn't a woman. Srem; font-weight:boldithiighhe was prey. Her skin would make a fine trophy. And her flesh… Would she taste different? He didn't prefer the flesh of man, like some did, but there could be no wasting in a world of toxic plants and sparse game. Why had
kept her alive? Flame
magic? And why was he here alone on the
? Perhaps this flame
did have powers. She had cunning, if nothing else. She knew the claim of spirit healing would protect her. Killing one of the Knowing was frowned
a rule adhered to even by most hunters. Killing a spirit healer was especially taboo because angry spirits stuck around to infect others.
His heart thundered as he looked from his brother to her. Her skin was free of the scars that decorated those of the Knowing. "You're not marked."
She slanted a look down her long, green legs. "The flame
marked me plenty."
He couldn't help letting his gaze follow hers. Even lacking the scars, her leaf-green skin was a sort of mark. No one had captured a flame
before. She claimed to be human. With her hands still tied behind her back, her nipples stood out like small, glowing coals. Perhaps in his drunkenness
could be excused his lust.
As if sensing his distrust, she said, "This hunter stole me from his brothers. Tried to take my power. He took too much." A twist of smugness curled her scabbed lips.
shook his head. So like his brother. And it explained why
was alone on the
. But what had he hoped to gain? This flame
was obviously his prisoner, spirit healer or not. Was his slumber truly due to her power?
looked hard at the sleeping man. There was no sign of
outside the shelter. The rope connecting
to the flame
coiled beneath the shelter, long enough to allow her to range the camp.
pointed to the rock several steps away. "Sit there."
She struggled to her feet, clumsy in her trusses. Once she complied, he eased to his hands and knees and stuck his head inside the low shelter. The enclosed space reeked of unwashed body and stale sex. In the dim corners,
discarded leather clothes and a few fish bones from a long ago meal. Not even a knife or stone large enough for a weapon. His brother traveled the
alone and without a weapon?
. Peeling open
found the pupil dilated. Filth caked the hunter’s beaded beard and hair, but other than the broken nose, he didn't seem injured.