There are a great many and various sorts of rumees in this world—rumee being the traditional word for fool, or perhaps more accurately, for someone who doesn’t have their head sown on quite right. There are indeed more rumees out there than there are stars in the cosmos or numbers of arithmetic in which to enumerate them all. That’s just how it is. But by far the worst of them, the most insufferable, the most maddening, the ones not worth a pile of sour apples—are dogs.
With fists clenched, young Itzel Toch grits her teeth and lets out a silent scream to the heavens. Fresh dog caca is currently oozing between her toes. She scrapes her bare foot on the grass alongside the mountain trail. On her list of annoyances today, this is only one of many. The other that comes immediately to mind, however, is the bee sting on her bum; ironically, also business related.
The universe is transpiring against her, of that there’s no doubt.
Most villagers in her situation would reflect upon what they’d done to offend the Seven Old Ones. They’d seek forgiveness, perhaps by leaving an offering at a totem or making a prayer to a wise and kindly ancestor, one who could petition the spirit world on their behalf. But not Itzel Toch. As far as she’s concerned, whoever was in charge of running the universe deserved nothing short of a fatfishing slap.
Now back to this dog. A bit mysterious, really. Dogs aren’t particularly common up here in the mountains or in her village of Tlam'il. There’s too many stonecats around. And everyone knows stonecats love dogs. Love to eat them, that is!
Fortunately they don’t eat little tribal girls or Itzel might be worried walking all alone in the mountains. But she makes this hike up the pass about half a dozen times a year. Generally the only thing one needs to worry about is the occasional snake sunbathing on a boulder. Some of them are poisonous. All of them are creepy.
Stonecats, on the other hand, they run off the moment they see you. And they’re not actually made of stone, of course. That would be silly. How could they move? They’re just furry mountain cats with coats the color of shale, funny little beards, and tall ears—which is how they hear you coming. And if they don’t run, you can bung a stone at them, right between their eyes. Then they definitely take off. Which Itzel imagines is why they’re called stonecats in the first place. Because they’re dumb as rocks.
Speaking of dumb—Uncle Tico.
He’s not really her uncle, that’s just a title you’re supposed to call your elders, which for Itzel, being ten, is pretty much everyone under the sun. For some unfathomable reason, he lives on a tiny farmstead way up on Stonecat Pass. Apparently he likes the quiet, but by the Old Ones, if it’s not a serious hike up there and back. And when someone needs something delivered to him (which is more often than you’d imagine given that he’s not half as self-sufficient or clever as he likes to think he is) well then it’s—yes, Itzel, be a doll and run this up to Uncle Tico.
Rumees, the lot of them.
What they don’t know is that once she had to fight off a five-foot black bear with nothing but her lavi up here. A lavi is the small work knife all Telemlee ladies keep tucked in their sash belts around their skirts, right at the small of their backs. But the point is, could they fight off a bear? Do they even care that she had to? Don’t be silly, Itzel, there are no bears in these parts. Bah! When they see a black bear with one eye poked out and an irrational fear of little girls, then they’ll know.
It’s worth noting that she also rescued a goblinfolk king during the whole bear encounter thing, but that’s a story for another time. Right now she needs to finish getting the dog caca off her foot so nobody will think she’s a stinky little girl lacking in personal hygiene. She’s barefoot, which is normal for the Telemlee. That’s her tribe. There are other Valleyfolk tribes, of course—the Savalee and Daralee down across the lake, as well as the Tacalee far to the north. But she doesn’t bother with any of the other tribes much. They’re not exactly the brightest flowers in the field.
If one catches the meaning.
That goes for the Farfolk too, who live outside the valley in what people call the Midlands. They occasionally wander over the mountains for this reason or that. Itzel’s noticed they’re always wearing sandals when they come, which really tells you all you need to know about them. Soft feet lead to soft brains, everyone knows that. The Farfolk also marry their siblings and regularly get lost on their way to the toilet—at least that’s what her Gramma Toch says. And Gramma Toch is old enough to know everything.
Having completed her delivery up to Uncle Tico, and now on her way back to her home in Tlam’il, Itzel reaches into the hidden pocket of her sash belt and pulls forth the copper shekel she was paid for today’s delivery. She rubs it in all its glory. Hidden under a rock behind her hut she has twenty more just like it.
Butterflies are poking around in her belly.
Soon, she is thinking. Soon she will be the wealthiest little girl in the entire village. Let’s see that floozy Itoti make fun of her then.
It goes without saying that Itoti is a rumee.
Seriously, though. A right, fatfishing idiot, that one. Itzel knows you’re not supposed to take fatfish in vain. The Lady of the Mere provides the bountiful fatfish so that the Valleyfolk never go hungry. They say she fills the sacred waters of Lake Telem right to the brim with those ugly, slimy, dead-eyed things. And yes, by Itzel’s lights, all fish are ugly, slimy, dead-eyed things—fatfish simply doubly so. Not to mention they have whiskers, which you have to confess, is proper bizarre for a fish.
It may be worth mentioning that her village of Tlam’il is nowhere near the lake. As one of the larger mountain villages, Tlam’il sits instead at the mouth of Stonecat Pass, high up in the foothills, surrounded by beautiful pine forests, romantic mountain streams, alpine fields of purple flowers, and sweeping, bucolic vistas. What do those lakeside villages have? Nothing but a big puddle full of fish pee. This means, of course, that mountain villagers like Itzel don’t particularly eat much fish. Thus they are perhaps a little less reverent toward the Lady of the Mere than their lakeside counterparts. Indeed, Itzel prefers to honor Old Man Chimat, Elder of the Mountains. He grows the flowers and creates the rivers and mountain springs. Probably by relieving himself. Honestly, old men are like that.
She’s heard Telemlee down by the lake whisper that he’s a foreign god, borrowed long ago from opposite the pass, from the land of the Farfolk. But one shouldn’t believe every salacious rumor they hear. It’s simply that highland villagers like her have always been a bit culturally distinct from the rest of the Telemlee. Probably because in the valley they swim too much in that giant lake of theirs. Itzel likes to imagine that they all have soggy brains down there.
While on the topic of the Old Ones, she’s also partial to Otimat the Crow Princess, Creator of the Stars. A trickster, yes—but really, these days, who isn’t?
Not that Itzel is a particularly reverent little girl. Leave Old Man Chimat a copper shekel at one of his forest totems and he’ll look out for you for the day. That’s what they say. Well, she figures she can look out for herself just fine with a few extra shekels of her own in her pocket. So... yes... she’s swiped a shekel or two from the stray totem here and there. Not her proudest moments in life by far. But how do you think she got all twenty of those shekels?
A grin pops onto her face.
Make that twenty-one!
This one was hard-earned, of course, and not lifted from a totem tray like so many of the others. Actual fatfishing work. Half a day hiking up the pass and the rest of the day back down. Uncle Tico would have lodged her for the night—but no thanks. She already tried that once. That old wife of his is a Farfolk, believe it or not. From the Midlands. Horrid place. Probably. Not that Itzel has ever been there, or anywhere out of the valley for that matter. Anyway, all this is to say that the old lady still cooks Farfolk food, which is as bland as boiled turnips.
As Itzel walks downhill, her work finished for the day, ice-capped mountains rise up on either side of her. It’s chilly, but her inhat skirt is not only made of thick Taca sheep wool, but also double layered, all traditional like. It’s azure and embroidered with a few horizontal lines, each made of small repeating designs which mark her not only as a Valleyfolk, but specifically as a Telemlee—even though, like she said earlier, her village isn’t even down in Telem Valley with the rest of the Telemlee villages. But whatever. Apparently it’s close enough. When you speak Telemspeak, that makes you a Telemlee. Even if you hate fish.
Her light blouse is more of a problem today, given the cold breeze, but that’s why she has a jacket— it’s thick black fur with the skin still attached, pulled right off the poor goat bugger who gave his noble life so that she wouldn’t shiver on these stupid errands up the pass. At least she hopes he gave his life. It would be mighty strange if he were still wandering around, sans his skin and all. She has pondered recently, on account of the jacket, if a rumee stonecat is going to think that she’s an actual goat and jump her. But so far, so good.
Now about this dog again. Remember him? She has to come back to that. Because it’s odd. She’s thinking that she’s never actually seen a dog up here. Not on the pass and not in Tlam’il either. Over in the Midlands, sure. She’s heard they love those stupid mouth-breathers over there—which really makes you wonder just how stinky their feet must be.
Uncle Tico’s wife did mention something about three Farfolk passing through with a dog recently. It probably doesn’t take a wizard to figure this mystery out. That’s assuming, of course, this is what the old crone actually said. Farfolk speak like they have bees in their teeth, the goodwife being a prime example. And they use quite a few queer words. But assuming dog means the same for the Farfolk as it does for the Telemlee, then yeah—apparently some rumees came by with a dog.
After what it’s done to her foot, she prays to the Old Ones that a stonecat eats the thing. That’s probably not a nice thing to wish, but Itzel Toch is not necessarily known as the nicest little girl in Tlam’il.
Nicer than that trollop Itoti though, that’s for sure.
Speaking of Itoti, once Itzel is rich in shekels, she’s going to hire a thug from one of the Taca villages to cut that girl’s braids off in the middle of the night and tattoo her rosy cheeks with unbeg beetle oil. You don’t ever get that off. At least that’s what Gramma Toch says.
Itzel poked an unbeg beetle once to see how you get the oil out, but he just got mad. And apparently they spray urine. Which not only reeks like all get out, but also calls all their unbeg buddies. Oh, and they bite. She learned that too. No more doing that. So anyway, why are three Farfolk and their stupid, defecating, good-for-nothing dog heading down to Tlam’il?
That probably isn’t where they are ultimately going. It’s just that the Anek Mountains are fairly impenetrable, with Stonecat Pass being one of the few routes across. As such, you pretty much have to pass right through her village on your way into the valley. Merchants from the Midlands occasionally do that sort of thing. The Telemlee are considered master weavers—blankets, clothings, you name it. Woodwork too, at least in some of the larger lake villages. Tlam’il is known for artzik, which is like a dried yogurt. It’s an acquired taste, to be honest.
But if these three foreigners were merchants, how come no cowcart? Those leave tracks, which she doesn’t see. Also Uncle Tico would have mentioned it. He lodges merchants sometimes for coin. That’s another reason he likes living up there in the pass, so that he can steal business from Auntie Uman who does the exact same thing in Tlam’il.
So without a cowcart, how were these Farfolk going to transport anything back? The dog surely wasn’t going to carry anything. He’ll be too busy relieving himself in inappropriate places.
They could be hunters, she supposes. Highland elk, spotted tea deer, rabblemunks. The valley is filled with wildlife. But don’t they have all those critters on their side of the pass? Could be they were looking for fey creatures. Rumor had it a horned puka owl was nesting somewhere up in the mountains. But you weren’t supposed to pester fey creatures. They could be real nasty.
Farfolk, of course, don’t care. Itzel has heard they like to ground fey creature parts into bubbling potions and what not, like some silly story told around the fires on Sacred Night.
Though, speaking of fey creatures, Itzel did run into a tree drytxl in the forest once, when she’d wandered off the trail (something she’d been warned a hundred times never to do).
True to her name, the drytxl lady looked like a tree. Probably would have turned Itzel into a bush too, but Itzel ran out of there faster than a half-crazed chirpmunk, screaming like a donkey for Old Man Chimat to protect her and promising to return all his copper shekels if he did. Which, in hindsight, she forgot to ever do.
Tree lady was kind of pretty, though. Would be a shame if she got turned into a potion just so some old Farfolk geezer could stay awake longer playing cards with his mistress, or whatever geezers and mistresses do together at night. Don’t ask about that, Itzel. Fine, fine. Whatever, mother.
Itzel can’t think of her mother. She has to push that thought away, lock it down somewhere tight. Shekels. She needs to focus on more shekels. Then she can head down to the valley and buy the prettiest braid clamps, bangles, and seashells anyone in Tlam’il has ever seen. They say Master Wevoch in Shalam’il is the best craftworker in the world. Even Gramma Toch speaks highly of him, and that was really saying something.
It’s even occurred to her to maybe buy something beautiful from the Farfolk. Those merchants weren’t always coming into the valley just to buy things, after all. Occasionally they were selling too. And the Farfolk had a real mastery of gems and gold and steel.
But no, she shouldn’t consider that. The Farfolk were a pretentious people. Best to keep it simple. An earring might be nice, though. She’s seen those on some of the Farfolk ladies. But did you really have to poke a hole in your head to make them work?
That. Is. Crazy.
She reckons if she does comes across these three Farfolk and their rumee dog, she’ll inquire about earrings and whatnot. Just to have an idea how many totem trays, er—trips up the pass—she’ll need to make before she can afford anything, should she decide to go that route and prove once and for all to Itoti that Itzel Toch is not a rat-haired feral half-made of mud.
Itzel’s mother once told her that all the light-colored blotches on her skin, which cover large parts of her hands, neck, face, and lips, just meant Old Man Chimat liked her so much that he gave her extra kisses when he visited her on her Flower Day, which occurs twenty-eight days after you’re born. Everyone brings you flowers, obviously, and Old Man Chimat comes to bless you at night because, well, good job not getting eaten by a wolf or something during your first few weeks of life, you rumee baby.
The other girls in the village, however, don’t look at the blotches that way. And though Itzel hates to admit it, Gramma Toch won’t really look at them either. That does hurt a little. Especially since now they don’t really have anyone else but each other. Gramma Toch isn’t exactly known as the social butterfly of Tlam’il. Most folks walk by the hut as quick as right possible, head lowered, less they get an earful about this thing or that.
Itzel starts to skip—as this is a clever way to descend the trail more quickly. Two hours more and she’ll be home, just before dark, which is when things can get a little worrisome along the pass when you’re only ten, and you’re alone, and not all the creatures know you once rescued a goblinfolk king from a six-foot cave bear with nothing but your lavi, which even now is tightly sheathed in her sash at her back.
She should be a warrior! Really. She’s seen things. The Farfolk think they’re adventurers, but how come you rarely see them in the valley? Because they’re scared, that’s why! They live in big stone cities surrounded by walls. Or so she’s heard. Sounds cowardly, if you ask her. Her hut is on the edge of the village, with no wall nor nothing for security, just a few stone piles (avo as they’re called) spaced every so many yards apart to let the fey creatures know which side of the world is theirs and which side belongs to the Telemlee. Fey respect those boundaries, believe it or not. All except the untxies who are perverts and sneak in during the night to steal your undergarments.
But the point is, some nights, when she has to go out to relieve herself, the forest is right there, staring back at her. Raw nature. The abyss of darkness. It will fatfishing eat you. Could the fancy Farfolk deal with that? No stone wall to protect them, the babies?
She doubts it.
She could best any one of them.
Which is the exact thought she is having when she stumbles across exactly four of them blocking the road, each armored in heavy hide and billowing clocks, their faces weathered and mean. An assortment of clan axes, knives, and swords dangle freely from their belts. The biggest among them, a real monster with shoulders like hilltops, steps towards her. He’s bald, but what he lacks on his head, he’s made up for on his chin. Really. A bird could nest in that tangled red bush of a beard.
He’s also got orange half-moons painted under his eyes and an orange bar smeared across his forehead. It’s how the Farfolk mark their clans—hearths as they call them—and it has some religious importance, though she’s never seen orange markings before, only white, like Uncle Tico’s wife.
As he towers over her, as his frame blocks out the sun, she’s consumed by darkness and shadow. She doesn’t even have time to use her magic whistle, the one she carries around in her hidden skirt pocket for times just like this. What’s the point then, really, to carry that blasted thing everywhere she goes if she’s not clever enough to use it when there’s a foreign brute breathing down on her? Interesting story how she got the whistle, though.
Probably best told another time.
The other three Farfolk saunter up until she’s almost surrounded. She’s heard from what she considers very credible sources that some Farfolk are cannibals.
And these four look real hungry.
“Oh, fatfish,” she thinks aloud.
COMING MAY 2022!
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