The time before sleep was Nahanni's favourite. The lethargy of walking, forever walking, leached out of her bones and coiled like a vine into her brain. There would be no sign from the bleached-blue sky, or the incessant Sun blazing vacantly overhead, but every time the tribe settled to sleep it was the same. First she would spot sideways glances, as her tribes people gauged the cracks of fatigue in each other and subtly ventured their own. Then an unspoken feeling would take the tribe, and the silent procession would circle in on itself. Tents would unfurl like mottled blooms, and dried meat and fruits would waft from unbuckled packs. Food and shelter arranged, the tribe would gather around the elders. The hour was ripe for stories.
"If you don't walk fast enough," the elders would say, "the Dark will swallow you up."
"First the blue sky will deepen into a thick oily black, and then the air becomes deathly cold. In the moments before your bones freeze to ice, shimmering lights will appear in the pitch-black sky, the faint hope of a billion distant Suns. The ancients used to call them stars
Nahanni walked, one planted foot before another, over and over again. Soon she would complete her second time around this stalled Earth and become an adult. There would be a ceremony like ten sleeps ago there was for Tegen. Maybe the elders would find her naming place too, but as an orphan she didn't rate her chances. Nahanni still knew that the tribe cared for her deeply, as she did for them. Nameplace or not, there would be drumming and dancing and feasting, praise to the Sun overhead and perhaps the greatest celebration of all — a day without walking.
Then adulthood. Free to walk with whoever she wanted, however fast she wanted. Two trips around and four or five more in her life if she was lucky. Days upon days, steps upon steps, stretching out ahead in the long journey of her life.
Nahanni was one-and-a-half, but before the catastrophe her age would have been sixteen. Her bright hazel eyes peered out from a mopish sand-blonde fringe, and her face was ochre-streaked with dirt. The ragtag appearance continued into her threadbare clothes which she had scavenged from a deserted town many sleeps ago. A light breeze wafted fresh air through her tattered attire, while the warm Sun fell fat and heavy on her brown arms.
Running exuberant circles around her sandaled feet was Katla, Nahanni's inseparable dog. Katla had joined the tribe when Nahanni was less than one and formed an immediate bond. Short-haired and gangly-footed, with a big brown circle on her mottled white body, the sheer love of life emanated from her.
Her head was brown also, and her ears drooped into a soft V either side of her deep black eyes. Her muzzle was now flecked with white but she played with Nahanni like a puppy.
Following the human convention, the name "Katla" had come from her nameplace, the vast volcano where she was found deserted and almost starved to death. Nahanni wondered if, like humans, dogs had separated into Sunwalkers and Sedents. A shiver crept up her spine to think of those Sedents, who choose to be swallowed by the Dark for half of their lives. She couldn't imagine Katla was a Sedent. So impulsive and carefree, Nahanni thought that Katla would forever follow the Sun, chasing insects and tracking warm scents on the breeze.
Nahanni had never seen the Dark, but she knew it was bitterly cold, cold enough to turn flesh into ice if you stayed out in the open. Sedents spent their time in the Sun planning and calculating, growing and storing, ensuring they had enough food and fuel to hunker down in their squat homes and see out the Dark. She had heard that further south, too far south for Sunwalkers to reach, there were Sedent cities where they drilled holes in the ground and searched for liquid wood, so thick and condensed it would burn right through the Dark. Sedents operated in a strict hierarchy of control, of reward and punishment, and everyone had a role to fulfil.
Nahanni didn't think Katla was into planning or receiving instructions. Katla did as she pleased, and was always pleased by what she did, living one joyous moment after the next. There was no malice or prescience, no suffering now to succeed later. There was no right or wrong, only life and love for her owner. Every moment was as fresh as the tingling tales that rode the wind into her proud whiskered nose.
Often the elders' stories were of the time before the catastrophe. Back when the Sun tracked across the sky so fast that the Dark would come every sleep, but on waking it would be over. Virtually all of the ancients were Sedents. There were a very small number of Sunwalkers; a handful in Oz-Tralia and the far frozen north, but they walked to hunt and find food, not to follow the Sun.
Then a great explosion hit the Earth, the ocean rose into mountainous waves and drowned whole cities, and clouds of angry dust Darkened the skies for thousands of sleeps. Millions died in the catastrophe and many millions more in the resulting famines and wars. At first the ancients remained Sedents and scurried around, bent-backed and urgent in their duties. Duties to prepare and to see out the Dark in their dwellings, a poor imitation of the life before. However, there were some who embraced this changed world. They put their homes on their backs and walked ever west under the kind gaze of the Sun. These people became the Sunwalkers.
In the Dark, the oceans would freeze into thick ice, and survival for the Sunwalkers depended on crossing the Big Sea, from Skand-Navia to Kanada, just behind the Dark. The dun would be low in the sky, turning the world a syrupy orange and gold, but the ice was thick and strong. In the middle of the Big Sea was Ice-Land, home of Katla's nameplace but little else. Tribes had to stock up on food and essentials before following their long shadows across the Sea, which would take around a hundred sleeps of hard walking. Fierce winds and shards of ice would barrel across the empty landscape and many Sunwalkers were lost, especially children on their first time around.
Once the tribe arrived in Kanada the elders called for celebrations, and they could let the Dark race ahead while they ventured south to warmer climes, and even spend a few sleeps without walking. They could remain until the Sun was directly overhead and fruit ripened on the trees, their shadows shrinking into their rested feet. This was the time to recharge and recover, to mend equipment and to fill hungry bellies. Though all too soon the Sun would creep ahead of them, and the Sunwalkers would have to march west again, heading north across the Little Sea into Rusha, and then once more rushing to catch up on the Dark to cross the Big Sea once again.
Without breaking her stride, Nahanni scooped up a stick and threw it for Katla, who bounded after it. At that moment, without warning, the tribe's pace quickened, and an air of unease gripped the group. Nahanni ducked from side to side, trying to see past the forest of people and backpacks that blocked her view, Katla threading a trail in behind. A glance through the throng, a flash of green, a hint of grey. A settlement? Was it abandoned and theirs for the sleep?
Nahanni noticed several tribespeople's hands nervously reaching down for their weapons - knives, axes and the odd hunting bow strapped to their bodies — but there was no call to form an attack. Was it an abandoned Sedent town? Sedents lay traps, deadly even if they had left or died, and the chance of a reclusive Sedent was always a lingering threat even to a large tribe such as Nahanni's.
The tribe was on edge, relaxing only slightly as crumbling, long-deserted stone walls rose up in front of them. When the tribe spread out Nahanni could take stock of her surroundings.
This was a small village and — characteristic of similar settlements in central Rusha — it seemed to have been built for mining. The chance of meeting Sedents was small. The cracked shells of buildings were roofless and the plants grew bountiful and wild. Ripe apples adorned the wilding trees. In the centre of the village the Sun glinted off of a large tarnished church bell, barely supported by the rickety tower beneath it. A spool of rotting rope was piled at the base, and this great hulk of metal had no doubt remained silent for thousands of sleeps.
Within minutes tribes people were putting up tents, mainly young couples and those with children. Others were wandering off in small groups to look for food and salvageable items, weapons still ready to hand. Curiosity outweighed caution, but not by much. The Sunwalkers knew better than that. There was no issuance of instruction, no stipulation of control. No elder dictated who should search where, who should protect who, and who should remain and pitch tent. That was not the Sunwalker way. Decisions were made collectively and by feel, often without a word spoken. Routines based on habits, memorised through the generations.
As the tribe dispersed, Nahanni pondered their well practised actions. She likened their excited movements to Katla catching a new scent. She scaled a crumbling wall, carefully testing the rotten cement, then reached out and plucked a warm, ripe apple from the tree. It tasted sweet and delicious. Katla waited expectantly below, whiskered nose pointing at the sky.
A shout ran out, echoing lazily from the dilapidated buildings. Nahanni paused, juice sticky on her chin. Across the village square beyond the church bell, three tribes people were pushing a Dark bundle towards the main group, poking it with sticks and waving knives.
It was a Sedent! A Sedent child! Nahanni had never seen a Sedent up close before. Her pulse quickened with nervous excitement.
The Sedent was a young boy, his skin dull and matte and as pale the whitest cloud. His face was set, his eyes narrowed against the light. Long Dark hair fell greasily over his slightly chubby face and he walked with a pronounced stoop, as if he had spent much of his life in a room too small. He was passive to the jabs and blows from behind, but walked with resignation in his shuffling stride ahead of the broad steps of his captors.
The Sedent boy was shoved into the centre of the village, surrounded by the tribe.
"Speak boy," boomed Kiruna, a cheerful but purposeful elder, nearing the ripe old age of 7. "What is your name?"
The Sedent boy looked defiantly into Kiruna's eyes, who was more than half his height again, and said something in a harsh, guttural language. Kiruna looked around him.
"Can anyone speak this Sedent's tongue?"
The tribes people shifted uneasily without speaking. Nahanni felt an urge to climb down and join her tribe, but something made her pause. She saw her tribes people circling the boy like a single entity, no-one making a decision and no-one questioning either — allowing the collective will of the group to decide this Sedent boy's fate.
She saw thirty strong adults, toned from a life on their feet, athletic and well practised in fighting. And she saw them afraid of this unknown, this weakling Sedent boy. The circle flexed and warped, but like vultures would not close in. Frustration sounded louder in the words from all sides of the group. And again the boy replied the same short, unintelligible sentence. No louder, no softer, no more or less urgent than the first.
"Why are you alone?"
"Where are the other Sedents?"
"Where is your family?"
Nahanni knew why these questions were asked. If other Sedents were nearby the tribe could be in jeopardy. The frustration masked a growing urgency, and hands once again found comfort on the hilts of weapons. One man lurched towards the boy to provoke a reaction from this strange inert being. He didn't flinch. But the circle grew ever smaller and the throng pressed in. The Sun glinted off of blades sitting snugly in the Sunwalker's hands.
"We cannot leave you Sedent, you will tell your people of our course."
"The Sun is all knowing, but you hide yourself. What do you hide?"
"The almighty Sun helps us and us alone. We should please the Sun."
From the back of the circle an elder appeared with a slew of rope. Swiftly the boy's arms and legs were bound, and he was firmly positioned kneeling forwards. He was silent, even as Kiruna unsheathed the cruel hook of a hunting blade before his eyes.
Nahanni slid down from the wall, landing hard on the baked ground below and sprinted for the mob. She burst through to the centre of the circle and stood wide-stanced between Kiruna and the boy. Katla skidded in the dust, back legs sliding in a neat arc to stand hackles raised in front of Nahanni.
"What are you doing?" screamed Nahanni. "Look at you! Look at you all! You want to kill a young boy? He could be me! He is a Sedent, I am a Sunwalker, but otherwise what is the difference?"
Kiruna's face wrinkled a forgiving smile. "Nahanni, this is the way. If we let him live we are in danger. If we kill him we may please the Sun, and find more food in the coming sleeps."
"Then take him prisoner!"
Kiruna, still smiles in his eyes, sadly shook his head. His fond gaze reminded her of the many times she had leaned into his long dusty robes during his stories. The feel of rough cotton on her cheek, the smells of dry dirt and sweat, the rich timbre of his voice. His eyes locked on to hers, and he smiled. Then, to a space above her head, he nodded.
The tribe pressed in, squeezing Nahanni between Katla and the bound boy. Nahanni turned to face the Sedent and he looked up to meet her gaze. She saw a momentary glimmer in his Dark eyes, like Sunlight reflecting from the bottom of a well. Her heart flared in the face of his blank stoicism.
She imagined his life flashing before his eyes, his sense of failing his superiors, and perhaps his parents if he had any. She saw his time in the Sun, toiling in fields, sweating to fulfil orders. She saw his time in the Dark, measuring out strict rations, huddled in blankets around a flame. Secret moments of freedom, laying low in the refuge of ripe wheat fields for a short rest in the Sun. She saw him nestled close to his loved ones as the first pale light broke through a thousand sleeps in the Dark. Was he scared to die, Nahanni wondered, or did he even see his life as his own to give?
Rough hands grabbed her by the shoulders, dragging her away, while she fought and bit and spat at their grasp, Katla wheeling and barking. Two young men held her pinned in the dust. She could see their broad tanned backs as they turned and watched the circle. The Sun flashed from the blade held high.
"All honour the mighty Sun."
Then silence, spoilt only by a thick bloody gurgle and an eternal thump. The crowd leaned forwards, whether in reverence, piety or sick fascination Nahanni couldn't tell. The young men released her and Katla bound forwards to lick her cheek. She lay numb in the dust, watching the dancing slants of light as the Sun skipped between the tired legs of her tribe.
A bright rivulet of blood wove lazily between their tattered feet and then sank into the cracks of the Earth forever.
Nahanni did not stay for food or stories, retreating to her tent with Katla. The dog seemed confused to be missing dinner, but was soon curled up at Nahanni's feet, pawing the air in her dreams. Sleep did not come so easily for Nahanni as a knot of hunger kept her awake long after she had heard the last of her tribe retire. When sleep finally found her it seemed like only moments later there was a rustling outside of her tent, and a deep voice with the smoothness of driftwood called "Nahanni. It is time to walk."
The tribe left barely a trace. Only a Sunwalker's trained eye could see the faint markings where tents had once stood, the dirt carefully sifted and smoothed. The church bell remained unstruck.
Beyond the tent site, hidden away by thick foliage like a secret was another patch of displaced soil.
It was carefully disguised, but Nahanni could make out a small rectangular plot, a metre and a half or so in length. It was aligned due east, to meet the Dark and the Sun alike.
Nahanni bit her lip, glanced at Katla waiting dutifully to heel, and then looked at the motley tribe around her. She raised her head, felt the stark heat of the Sun upon her face, put one foot in front of the other and walked.