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The Big Empty: Chapter Eight - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Big Empty: Chapter Eight
Sorry this one took so long. It was arguing with me, and I was letting it win.

Chapter Eight
I don't much sleep that night.

It's probably stupid not to. We're going to have to make a break for it soon, and I won't be any good foggy headed. But I think about raising my hand at Misty, and about blood pouring over my shoes, and about robbing the corpses on the battlefield. I think about the blown off limbs and the way I turned my brain off and just did what I was told.

I've been issued new shoes and clothes, but I still feel like I'm covered in muck, and I can almost smell the blood on my shoes.

My stomach churns and my hands shake, and I feel like I'm crying, but I'm not. I'm lying perfectly still in the darkness of the guest tent, looking at the shadows cast by the faint moonlight that's passing through a few holes. A beam of it catches a jabberjay cage.

"I can't sleep," I tell it.

"I can't sleep," it says back, without waiting for the signal. They've gotten used to my voice, I guess. They know what they're supposed to do, and they do it.

"I can't sleep," another one picks up, then another, then another, until all ten of the birds in the tent have repeated it.

"Now none of the rest of us can sleep, either," Juliana mutters. "Shut up."

Corabel comes in with a shotgun, and we all stay quiet.

I roll over.

Misty's eyes are open, and she has a little, puzzled frown on her face. I look away.

I finally get to sleep, but it seems like it's only a few minutes before I wake up again. We're moving north. We can't get very far, because it's swampy between the two rivers. Tick says it's because they used to be dammed up at the north, and the flow sometimes still gets slow. Scouts ride ahead to make sure we're not running straight into the army.

It starts to rain in the early afternoon, and we're pretty well stuck, so Trajan irritably orders us to make camp, even though we've only come a few miles. The rain is hard and miserable, and Verus decides to set up the pavilion tent that they use for "market day" -- I'm guessing some kind of raider fair where they go to trade goods -- so we'll have someplace to gather tonight. It takes a lot of hands, apparently, because everyone ends up fighting with the mud and puddling water to get it erected. I can see why they don't normally do it. The pavilion is very large, and has a roll out waterproof floor, with a fire pit in the center of it. Above it, there's ventilation. It's very fancy, obviously meant for a big celebration.

"Sometimes, folks juggle or dance at market day. One time, I saw someone with a monkey in a hat," Spicer tells me.

"A monkey?"

He nods vaguely. "They run around in District Ten. I heard they came up from the south when the oceans rose, but Trajan said that they teach in Capitol schools that there used to be zoos, where people kept animals from around the world. They still have one in the Capitol. Anyway, during the wars, people let animals out so they could have a chance to survive the bombings. The ones that were tough took root. Monkeys were tough, I guess. At least the ones that were in zoos where it was warm enough."


"Anyway, it was fun. To see the monkey, I mean. And there was a lady in a flouncy dress and shoes that were like drums -- I mean, she was part of the music while she danced. And they showed off sharp-shooting, and had a horse race." He shrugs. "It's about the best thing I've seen out here. And they have a whole agreement not to kill each other on market day, so that helps, too." He shrugs. "My dad, back in District Ten, he used to be able to get a horse to dance. I thought of him. I thought everyone would like to see a horse dance. I thought it'd put them in a better mood. Only I never got to be that good a rider. I never have been able to get these nags to move right."

"But you can ride on your own?"

He grins. "I'm from District Ten. If you can't ride a horse out there, you're in pretty big trouble. They just don't let me go riding alone. Afraid I might bolt."

"Would you?"

"I don't know where I'd go."

"But if you had someplace?"

He shrugs. "Let's get back to work."

It takes a while and a lot of strength to tie down the pavilion, but when it's done, it's dry and cozy. The raiders order us to bring in all the inventory. Spicer goes to help Cooky with the food supplies, and I go back to the guest tent, where the girls are getting the other things bundled up.

Duronda bumps into me forcefully, and we trip over to where Misty is, just outside.

"I got our stuff bundled," she says under her breath. "Except your banjo."

"I'll want that."

"Yeah, but they'll be paying attention to that. You keep playing nights. When we can, that'll be our cover. I think the birds will help."


"The jabberjays. They pick up what you say now. We could use them for confusion. For more cover."

"I think even one-eyed, Trajan will know the difference between me and a bird," I say.

"That's what I said," Duronda says. "And we don't know where we're dropping anyone. And I don't think we can do it with everyone."

"You said you had an idea?" Misty looks at me.

I bite my lip. "The armies. They're still nearby. We leave the little ones with whoever's closer."

Duronda's jaw drops. "You want to leave them with the Capitol?"

"Not especially, but I'll take the Capitol army over the Capitol lowlifes Trajan wants to sell them to."

"We don't even know how far they are."

"They're limping after yesterday," I say, and force away visions of the bodies on the field. "They're stuck in the same mud we are. They can't be far."

"Well, wait for the scouts," Misty says. "But Effrim… don't…" She bites her lip. "Don't spend more time with them than you have to. I think they're looking to recruit you."

I'd like to argue, but I don't. I'm pretty sure she's exactly right. I think that was the point of yesterday -- to start turning me, slowly but surely, into them.

We can't talk much more, because Corabel shows up and starts haranguing us to get everything under the pavilion.

The hours pass slowly. I sing in the pavilion after supper. Everyone must have market day in mind, because there are impromptu calls for performances after I finish singing. Spicer does tricks with a horse rope (he says they look impressive, but are no good with real horses). Trajan wraps a bright scarf around his head and tells everyone's fortunes (everyone apparently has bawdy or violent futures). Juliana recites a poem about a man mourning his lost love, named Lenore, which features a talking bird. Bizarrely, the rough raiders love it, and demand another. Juliana can't think of one, so Misty recites an old saw about shepherds that she picked up somewhere. Duronda walks on her hands and, to my surprise, takes an extravagant bow while they clap.

When the men start drinking, some of them try acrobatics, or balancing on a rope. Verus says he once saw a fellow walk on hot coals, but no one quite dares to try that one. Trajan claims that, before he lost his eye, he was the best shot in the Capitol, and he can still shoot better one-eyed than other people can with two. His demonstration of this doesn't quite work out, and he shoots a hole in the top of the pavilion, but everyone claps anyway.

Tick notices the jabberjays long after moonrise.

Ours are still in their cages, but there are more now, lining the poles of the pavilion.

"Hey, boys," Tick yells. "Looks like some idiot in the Capitol's still using jabberjays! Guess he didn't get the message."

Cooky laughs and calls to the birds. "We're headed for the moon next!"

"No, we're digging to China!"

"You sail to China, you dimwit, it's over the ocean."

"Well, given that we stole a space ship from Thirteen -- "

"-- and we all know how to fly it --"

This drill of lying to the jabberjays, which has actually become a game in Twelve even though we haven't seen the birds themselves in years, becomes raucous and ridiculous, and it's hard to square these laughing men with the ones I saw yesterday, tearing fillings out of the mouths of dead soldiers.

We all sleep in the pavilion that night. Trajan, drunk, comes over and starts grabbing at Duronda. She shoves him off of her easily, but Reilly and I take turns staying awake that night and sitting among the girls. It doesn’t matter, I guess. Trajan is passed out within half an hour.

The rain is still coming down in the morning, and most of the men are hung over, so camp is pretty slow until noon, when the scouts come back. They report to Trajan, and he gestures over to a corner of the pavilion near a little stove.

Duronda starts to head over to listen, but I tap her shoulder. "You'll get in more trouble than I will," I tell her.

She wrinkles her nose, but lets me go.

I'm on a detail sweeping the pavilion floor, so we can roll it up when we're ready to go, and I try to make it look accidental as I head over toward Trajan. He doesn't seem to notice.

The scouts are huddled down around him, getting warm beside the stove and stripping off their soaking long coats. Trajan glances at me and points at the coats, and I scramble to pick them up and hang them on the pavilion ropes. It costs me a minute of whatever they're saying, but I take advantage of it. I grab dry blankets and bring them over. They smile at me fondly.

I nod and go to the pile of blankets, which we've counted twice already, but I doubt Trajan concerns himself much with camp chores. I try to look involved in it.

"Any of those damned birds around?" Trajan asks.

"Didn't see any on the tent, but I saw them in the woods," one of the scouts says. "They're stuck up by the dams -- both armies. The Capitol's closer, but the rebs are stuck in the mud, too. They're firing potshots at each other, but neither of them's risking a battle yet."

"Do they know we're here?"

"Nah. They think we moved on. The exact words from the Capitol strategy tent were, 'The vultures went south.'"

"You were close enough for exact words?"

"I got a girl in the camp to report to me. She thinks we're romantic."

"Are you nuts? You let a tail know you were there?"

"Ease off, she's fine. I have her dreaming about the freedom of life on the open road. She's about ready to off the commander."

They all laugh.

"The birds -- did they go back?"

"No. The commander's not very good with them. He swears by them, but he can't control them." The scout pulls his boots off and pours water out of them.

The other one leans forward. "They do have other muttations, though, Trajan. They've got tracker jackers under glass -- little bombs to drop on the rebs, I guess. And big sniffer dogs. They look like wolves, but they're not. Real wolves will keep away if they're not hungry. These are for searching the woods. And he does know how to handle those."

Trajan holds up his hand. "Boy?" he calls, looking in my direction.

I don't answer.

He raises his voice. "You! Twelve!"

I look up, trying to make myself look surprised.

"Yes, sir?"

"Did you hear any of that?"


"Any of what we were saying?"

I shake my head and laugh. "With this rain on the roof? I can't hear myself think."

Trajan frowns. "Go help your girlfriends with the birds," he says. "Now."

I go. I start to tell Duronda about what I heard, then I realize that this is a mistake Trajan wants me to make, so I just talk about the rain and mud instead.

As the sun sets, last night's jolly mood has faded into a kind of surly bad temper. Trajan touches Duronda again, and she slaps him. He grabs her arm and twists it.

"I'm going to make you scream, girl."

She narrows her eyes at him and glares as he twists. I can tell that it hurts her. Her face is going grayish, and the muscles in her neck are standing out. But she doesn't scream.

After a couple of minutes, Trajan grins. "You're still nobody," he says, "but you have the courage of your convictions, I'll give you that." He lets go of her, and I see her starting to relax. I see Trajan's arm twitch, but I don't register it quickly enough to warn her before he slaps her with the back of his hand, eliciting a startled screech. He grins again. "Told you I'd make you scream," he says. "Next time, just do it."

Duronda gets up and dusts herself off, then goes to the part of the pavilion where we've been sleeping and sits down on the floor.

Trajan promptly forgets about her.

I don't play my banjo that night. No one is in the mood for it.

There are a few breaks in the rain the next day. Another pair of scouts says that the armies are blocking each other, and sooner or later, they're going to have to fight. They spot a rebel scout in the woods. There's a brief argument about whether or not to kill him. In the end, they decide not to, since he hasn't seen us, and his disappearing would be more suspicious.

I work with my jabberjays, and I see the others in the trees now. A few of them pick up the song.

Misty comes to me, looking up at the trees. "They're just mimicking you, Effrim. They…" She laughs. "They're just going to do what they do, aren't they? They're just animals. The mutts, I mean."

"Not all of them."

"No, maybe not. But the jabberjays are. They're new animals, but just… animals. They have an instinct to copy."


She smiles. "There've got to be a hundred of them in the woods. Get them to follow you tonight."

"If we have a whole chorus of birds singing, the armies will hear them."

"That's the idea. And Duronda's got a few other things in mind."

I point at the caged bird and hiss, "Misty…"

"Oh, they like you. They won't tell. Will you, birdy? You have a name, don't you? What's your name?" She claps.

"What's your name?" the bird asks.

"Misty," she says.

"Misty," it says.

I shrug. "That's what they do."

"Mm-hmm. And they'll remember the last thing they heard. So let's give them something else to talk about."

She launches into a tale about helping Duronda wash the mud out of the raiders' clothes, and how it reminds her of washing things at home in the stream. She asks me about the resort, and talks about the lake. When Corabel comes over and claps the sharp command at the jabberjay, it helpfully tells her, in my voice, about how to fix a hole in a carpet.

She sniffs disdainfully.

There's some conversation about whether or not to have a campfire and singing, but Trajan decides to go ahead with it, before fights start breaking out in the camp. My banjo is presented without any requests.

I play "Clementine" and the fish song and the valley song. I play all the bawdy tunes the raiders like. I get the caged jabberjays to follow along. What I'm really watching for is the gathering of the others. Some fly into the pavilion and land on the poles. Others stay on the top.

I start to hear them on the pavilion roof after about an hour. Outside, with the clouds over the moon, it's inky black. My fingers are raw and my throat is starting to hurt, but I keep going. The birds are starting to copy me. The raiders think it's hilarious; luckily, it hasn't occurred to them that the armies might eventually pick it up, especially if there are mockingjays around as well.

"Do the one about the lady who lost her shorts in the Ghost Gulf!" Cooky yells.

"No, the one about the sharpshooter!"

I look up. It's getting darker in the pavilion. I notice that some of the torches along the wall have gone dark. Misty is standing at the back of the crowd. She's wearing a backpack. No one is paying attention. I don't see Duronda right away, but as I look, I see another torch go out, and a figure creeping slowly toward the next.

I start another song. Anything.

Juliana is coming around with blankets for the raiders. They take them gratefully, teasing her a little bit about how she might make a good camp hand. She works her way around the circle until she's right beside me… and the fire.

"Ready," she whispers as she leans over me.

Then everything happens quickly.

I don't understand it at first. I feel something wet and heavy on my shoulder, then there's a flash of movement. I see the wet blanket fly toward the fire pit, then suddenly, we're plunged into utter darkness. The raiders get up. There are flashes from gun barrels mostly lighting the place up with a kind of staccato brilliance, but no one screams.

"Effrim!" Misty yells. "Sing! Now!"

I go blank. I can't think of anything.

Then the words come. The words that they never wanted me to sing here.

"Are you, are you, coming to the tree…"

The jabberjays in the cages pick it up, then the ones outside and perched on the tent poles. My voice is everywhere and nowhere. Wings flutter around me in the dark, my voice rising up in the night all around me as I sing the old song.

"Someone shut the damned birds up!" Trajan yells. "Where's the real one?"

Someone grabs my arm. The hand is wet. I hope it's Juliana.

I'm dragged through the crowd, out into the open air. There's a tiny light ahead, and we run for it. When we get there, I find Misty holding a small lamp that she stole from the raiders' supplies. It is Juliana holding my arm. Reilly is carrying Claire, and Tongue-tie is standing there, sucking his thumb.

"Duronda?" I ask.

Misty bites her lip, looking anxiously toward the camp, even though it's utterly black that far away. "She wanted a gun," she says. "There weren't any near our things. I got your bow and arrows, but she…"

She shakes her head helplessly.

All we can do is huddle and listen to the jabberjays singing my song while the raiders crash around in the darkness. My eyes are starting to adjust to the low levels of starlight.

I have no idea how long it's been when I hear footsteps coming toward us. Misty flashes the light three times, then we step off the path and into the woods. It's wet and miserable, but the little ones don't cry.

There are two sets of footsteps, one quick and light, the other thundering along.

Duronda bursts through the trees. She has a rifle slung over her back and a knife in her hand.

She slips in the mud.

Trajan blasts through just behind her and catches her. "You little bitch," he says. "Where are they?"

"Nowhere," she says.

He throws her to the ground.

I pass my banjo to Misty and pick up a rock, but Duronda is quicker than I am.

She uses the slick mud to slide out from under him, then kicks him hard in the ribs.

He rolls over, his face up to the dark sky.

She brings her knife down and puts out his remaining eye. He screams.

I stop. I don't know what to do. She looks feral now.

"Who's nobody now?" she asks, and kicks him again.

"Duronda," Misty whispers.

I go to her and put my hand on her knife arm. "We have to go," I say.

She doesn't answer. She just stares at Trajan, who is still screaming, so loudly that I don't hear the footsteps until someone else crashes through. Duronda has already tightened her grip on the knife.

"It's just me," Spicer says. He turns and looks over his shoulder. He has a rifle gripped in one hand. "You have to get out of here. The birds stopped. They know. They hear that." He points at Trajan.

"And you're their advance guard?" Duronda snaps.

He shakes his head and raises his gun, looking back down the path. I can hear someone else coming now.

He fires.

There's a scream this time.

"You ungrateful little bastard," Trajan hisses, grasping at his blind eyes. "I saved you!"

"You kidnapped me," Spicer says, then brings down the butt of the rifle.

Trajan goes quiet, but he's still breathing.

"I should kill him," Spicer says. "He'll come after us again."

I shake my head. "Don't. Just… don't."

For a minute, I don't think I can stop him.

But he finally takes a deep breath and nods. Duronda looks like she's still contemplating the subject, so I yank her, none too gently, down a slope to where the others are.

Misty uncovers her tiny lamp, and we all head into the unknown woods, striking in what I hope is a northerly direction. Everyone has a backpack, but the only stop we make is to put my banjo in its waterproof case. I guess it proved its usefulness.

We walk together, stumbling in the dark and sliding in the mud, until we reach the river. It's a north-flowing one, and we follow it blindly, hoping for the best. The rain finally stops an hour or so before dawn. We're all soaking wet, and as the sun rises, we can see each other. They all look like small, drowned animals, and I guess I look the same. We're all shivering. Claire's lips are blue, and she's grasping her ragged dolly like a lifeline.

There's no place near us that's dry enough to warm up.

We're just standing there on the riverbank, dripping and shivering, when the camouflaged District One scout appears from the foliage.

She stares at us for a long time, then says, "Come on, then. I've got a hover sled and a warm tent back at the base. But you picked a bad day to drop by."

She loads us all onto the small hover sled she's been using -- it dips alarmingly, but holds us -- and flies it north, toward a ragged collection of tents.

We're still a mile away when I start to hear the shooting.
6 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 18th, 2015 02:01 am (UTC) (Link)

Story is getting GOOD now

The chapter was worth the wait.

-- Tom
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 18th, 2015 05:03 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Story is getting GOOD now

Glad you liked it!
beceh From: beceh Date: March 18th, 2015 08:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Ohhh! Very good! Looking forward to the next one :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 18th, 2015 04:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
From: queen_bellatrix Date: March 19th, 2015 06:42 am (UTC) (Link)
Just a few things I caught in my, admittedly, break-neck read of this chapter. This was absolutely incredible, and I'll definitely be back with proper feedback; for right now though, I feel like I've been hit by a freight train in the best way. You have some of the most breathless action sequences I've ever seen; I'm a savor sort of person, but every time you turn your hand to action, I'm flying down the screen as quickly as possible.

between me and bird Just missing an a before bird.

Reilly and take Just missing an I before take.

her slaps her First her should be a he, I think.

with my mockingjays Think mockingjays should be jabberjays? I remember them talking about the odd breeding with mockingbirds a couple chapters back, but didn't remember there actually being any mockingjays?

The all look Think the should be they.

She claps twice Was just rereading some of the chapters, and from what I could see, Corabel actually claps three times to get it to repeat.:)

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 19th, 2015 07:55 am (UTC) (Link)
Argh, I knew sooner or later, I'd make the jabberjay/mockingjay goof. Maybe that means it's out of my system now? :is hopeful:

I'll grab the fixes in the morning.

I'm glad you like the action chapters. I made myself learn to do action (baptism by fire with a five pronged battle), and I still find it the most challenging part of any story, just in terms of pacing and language. I'm much more comfortable with introspection and odd symbolic dreams... but I like forcing myself out of that comfort zone, too.
6 comments or Leave a comment