Features several new scenes, new dialogue, and a much better reading experience. Support the story and buy a copy today!
For the original “cover” for Tributaries, click here.
i see you all.
but so apart
spread apart:picked apart:far apart
On a tower of metal and light, I saw the span of a great and perilous land. Overhead, three small suns raged in the sky. I was a shard of night beneath cold steel and rusted iron.
The wind rushed to me the scents of damp rosewood, fertile soil, pearled barley, bay leaf, musty fur, and chimney smoke. The miscellany of a simpler life. I crouched on the platform and the lids of my tawny eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun-lit Earth. The village of Toah lay in the valley below; it was a small and peaceful place, nestled like a babe amid those cold forests. Children played kickball near the horse stables and the women washed their laundry in the nearby stream.
Clouds rolled forth from the horizon reaching hopefully Westward as the storm before me fell over the village and claimed daylight in its smoky fingers.
With bandaged hands and sure boots, I climbed down the watchtower. This place would suit me fine. The rainfall would cover my trail and mask my scent, leaving the villagers ignorant as they cowered from the downpour. If I was good about it, a jug of mead would very well be part of the meal. My mouth watered at the thought of biting into the hen’s neck—snapping it—the hot blood splashing over my parched tongue as I tore it apart. The thought of all I would be tasting almost made me fall out of the tower.
But my fatigue was making it harder to keep from slipping.
My feldgrau gambeson bunched as I fell from the last foothold and landed onto the uneven dirt, the shock of a twenty-five foot drop piercing up through the soles of my boots. A cloud rose at my feet—scents came with it—the typical wildlife smells: sparrows, local cats, rats, spit from a small boy who drank cider, as well as the faded smell of a drunkard’s piss. To Toah, this tower was a place of congregation and socializing. I took a risk climbing it, but I had to see what I was to expect. My luck had not been good to me, and I didn’t want to take the chance of running into a large dog or, worse, a small militia.
I brushed my dark hair away from my face and stood upright. I last cut my hair with a pair of shears found in a garden shed…but I had gotten clumsy and my bangs were now at an uneven slope, so that only one eye was covered and the other completely exposed. I couldn’t wait for the hair to grow out so that I could mend my mistake. Even in a practical sense, it was annoying to march about the way I looked.
My brown cotton pants were baggy, and the seat of them molted with wear. My boots were dusty and worn, and the soles threatened to separate all together. I looked like a pauper, and that was all I could hope for, as people tended to ignore me. But I couldn’t take all the credit for my appearance. My clothes had once been my mother’s clothes. I came to acquire them when she passed away not long ago. It wasn’t until the recent year that I could fit into them…and I did so awkwardly.
I could still smell her in the fabric.
I was tired from walking all day, and didn’t wish to be seen by anyone, so I slinked off into the cover of the woods to find a berry bush and a soft patch of ground to rest on. I waited until the suns were out of sight before I came back again.
Darkness. The new moon. I knew this even with the cloud cover.
I took off my boots and hid them near the berry bush, along with my other meager belongings. I had to take them off, or I’d tear through them.
Contrary to your assumptions, I am not a human.
Amid the bay trees, under the blanket of shadow that fell with Night’s passing, I shifted.
Now you can take that word and dissect it. Pick it apart however you like. Peek under the definition and garner whatever idea you’d like from it. Did I shift position? Did I shift demeanor? Did I shift motive?
No. I shifted. I changed. I transformed. I, being one thing, became another. …Or was always the ‘one thing’, and had only made it possible to gain a better perspective on the matter.
But shifting hurt. It always hurt. Payment to the One for use of her gifts. It led me to wonder…was my ability really inherent and unavoidable? Or just a privilege? If the latter was the case, could I renounce what I had? Would that make life easier? …But something resisted this thought, and in me came up a feeling that tasted of anguish.
My skin rippled and tingled as—beneath—my muscles shifted and bones snapped and curved to their new places. The transformation always began in the torso and spread its way out all at once, debilitating me completely before it was done. The nerves screamed. The muscles felt like they were tearing, ripping, shredding themselves as I shifted. I bit the inside of my cheek. Fur sprouted along my body. From my tailbone sprouted a tail, which forced its way through a discreet opening in the seat of my pants. Blood pounded in my ears and hot-cold flashes ravaged me until all fell quiet. When I stirred I was on the ground. My clawed hands sought placement in the dirt and I pushed myself up from the ground like a drunkard stirring from sleep.
I tried to clear my head. Changing always left me face-down in the dirt. I tried not to think about the aches that lingered as I reoriented myself using my new senses.
Though dazed, my mind already perceived the world through a different view; eyesight became fuzzy around the edges and color became dull, but I could see better in the dark now, and farther into the distance; my ears had become large and pointed on either side of my head, and they twitched at the slightest bit of sound; my nose processed my surroundings, not missing a single smell; my whiskers, which sprouted from my fleshy chops, tickled with the changes of the wind; even my tongue was privy to relating information to my brain as I tasted the dampness of the air. Soon it would rain, and by soon, I meant in a matter of seconds. Sure enough, droplets of water began to fall from the heavens through the forest canopy.
I loved water. I tilted my furry head back and spread my mouth wide, and fat drops splashed onto my tongue. I was in what my kind referred to as the waxing crescent form—or ‘near-human’. As I was, a person in the distance would perhaps only make out a very hairy person with bad posture.
The ignorant would call me a ‘cat person’…but anyone who knew better would know that I was part of the Ailuran race. For my part, I tried to be quiet, cautious, and unassuming. For a little over a year, I worked hard to be in control of myself at all times—and in my solitude had gotten quite good at it. I knew when it was necessary to tap into my other self. The feline half. Not many of my kind knew how to do that.
Then again, not many had to.
My transformation complete, I slunk near the ground and my fingertips lightly touched the Earth. I panted a little. I felt excited. It wasn’t often that I allowed myself to change other than the full moon. I flitted amain, down the slopes that dipped into the heart of the valley. By the time I entered the field surrounding the village, the rain came down in sheets. The water tried to repel me, and it pounded against my down-turned shoulders and furry head. The heavens overhead thundered and howled with a strong wind. I flattened my ears and bared my teeth.
I would not be deterred.
I came upon the village empty; all the denizens had retreated into their stone-wood homes, and warm glows seeped through the cracks of shut-up windows. With a cursory glance around me, I crossed the village square to the storehouse on the Western side. It was a medium sized wooden barn with no windows and only one way in. The double doors were bolted shut with a menacing padlock. I took my right hand’s pinky, extended its thin sharp claw, and inserted it into the keyhole. After a moment’s work, the lock opened and I pushed my way inside.
Over the years, through curious circumstances and a certain tendency toward rebellion, I had learned the various arts of thievery. As a child, I had crept past town guards to go swimming at night in the local lake; had snatched back toys my brothers had taken from me in a fit of sibling rivalry; infiltrated areas where adults spoke of dire things children were not supposed to know. These days, my shady skills were used for more serious affairs. …Like basic survival.
Bags of grain lined the floor and shelves inside the storehouse. I could smell the different kinds even without reading their markings. I plucked up two empty bags from a nearby rack and went to the grain sack that smelled of rice. With a scoop left on the rack, I shoveled enough into my bag to last a week. Deftly I tied it and slung the rice over my shoulder and went back out into the rain. I locked the barn again. With luck, the villagers would never even notice what really had happened.
My mouth watered at what I knew would come next. My claws extended in anticipation as I stalked toward the hen house, the empty bag I held in my other hand swayed like an unfulfilled promise with the motion of my arm. Inside the little shack, the hens clucked and tutted. They probably sensed my intentions.
I went to the locked door and meant to open it, as I had done at the food store. But there was a gasp, barely audible over the rain, that made me halt in my actions.
With bared teeth I whirled around, arms up and crouched low, ready to spring away. A man in a heavy cloak stared at me, his face hidden by the dark of his hood.
What was he doing?
No one was supposed to be out. No one. Yet, there was my unhap. I had shifted in order to sneak better, to use my claws, to see better in the dark…but my new form made hunger my master, and my distraction coupled with the rain had prevented me from noticing anyone was near. He could’ve been out to search for something precious he lost, maybe to fetch a tool he needed inside, or to double check that the hen house was properly locked. No matter what the reason was, I knew…
I had to run.
My clawed feet dug deep into the mud, and I tore off into a panicked run. I vaulted over the wooden fence. Behind, I could hear the man let out a hoarse yell as he slopped through the mud to get help. Inside me, the animal half of my soul growled low at the denial of meat. In the state I was in, my human nature still reigned supreme, but I could better hear the discontent of the feline beast within me. She was not a brave or ferocious warrior…but she was hungry, and well aware that the man could’ve been taken care of with a powerful swipe from our paws.
I wasn’t prepared for that.
I used my speed and agility to get me to the forest beyond Toah. I was on the other side of the village and would need to sneak my way back to the berry bush where I had left my other things. When I was deep enough in that I felt safe, I shifted back. Maintaining the waxing crescent form for a long period of time required a strong will. Without it, I would shift to my full form. I needed to keep quiet and focused—I needed to revert back to my “sapien” form.
The change back hurt just as much as it did the other way. I felt spent and nauseous, my limbs rebelling against me as I tried to rise to my feet. At first I only fell. The bag of grain I had spilled onto the wet earth. Normally after a shift, I would rest, fatigued. Did I run far enough ahead that I could afford a few seconds to catch my breath? No, I could not stop.
I forced myself up again, my body wet and my limbs feeble. I tried to keep steady as my vision lurched and I careened further into the forest.
I seemed to go on for some time, in a daze, trying to find a place that smelled of safety and comfort…but there was no such place. Try as I might, the angry call of those I wronged chased me quick and fierce like a monster all its own.
I plunged further into the darkness.