L. Lindsey Flansburg - Chiton

By Alan Palmer,2014-10-31 10:50
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L. Lindsey Flansburg - Chiton



    A short story by L. Lindsey Flansburg


    Published by L. Lindsey Flansburg at Smashwords

    Copyright 2010 L. Lindsey Flansburg


    Smashwords Edition License Notes:

    This free ebook may be copied, distributed, reposted, reprinted and shared, provided it appearsin its entirety without alteration, and the reader is not charged to access it.


    Also by L. Lindsey Flansburg, Published at Smashwords:




    We were struggling through the soft soil of another long cavern. It had been two weeks sincewe’d seen the sky. No one was paying much attention to the trail ahead except to pick up theoccasional bug to eat. My mind was wandering again, as it always had since I was young. I wastrying to decide if there were anything I could have done differently that would have led me tosome other end than this. All my life I had struggled to find my calling. Everyone hassomething they are born to do. Something they excel at. Not me. I had been apprenticed toalmost every possible occupation in the city, and somehow had found a way to fail at each andevery opportunity. It seemed that I had the special talent of quickly learning any skill up toan intermediate level, but never excelled at anything. I would be top of my class in any newendeavor until the other students invariably passed me by.

    Before I had come of age I had already tried my hand at a dozen occupations. As a carpenter orpotter I could do the work, but hated working in the mud. As a mason or cooper I was too slowwith the tools. As a blacksmith or cook I kept burning myself, or others. As a farmer or minerI was too unfocused. I had even given the church a shot, but they didn't like my endlessquestioning of the faith. I suppose that was how I ended up as a field laborer which left mewandering lost with a group of people I barely knew in this endless maze of tunnels.

    We were all tired of this endless retreat. I suppose that is why we were taken by surprise. Istumbled to a weary stop, not really knowing why. Those of my companions who were walking aheadof me had given up their forward progress and were slowly stepping backwards. One of themturned and ran past me Then another, and then the rest broke into a panicked rush back the waywe had come. For a moment I stood there alone staring confused into the dim recesses of thetunnel. My legs took a few terrified steps backwards before my mind could resolve the dim shapefilling the tunnel before me. I stumbled past another of my companions frozen in terror and Ifell backwards into the thick dust.

    The pale round face of the creature hung near the cavern ceiling. Its grotesque featuresscanning toward us, trying to spot us with its two bulbous eyes, nearly blind in the dim light.I could clearly see its two upper limbs scratching in the cavern floor, pulling it forward. Itsclaws were split into five blunted tips bending unnaturally as they probed toward our group.

    The back of it’s massive body scraped against the ceiling as it struggled to support the bulkof its weight on the upper half of its two powerful lower legs, awkwardly bent in half, thelower half dragging uselessly behind.

    The screams of the others became clear words at last in my ears, "Aliens!", and "Run!, Run foryour lives!"

    All my legs and arms swam in the thick loam, trying vainly to push my prone body away from themonster.

    "Roberts!", someone shouted, "look out!".

    Roberts couldn’t seem to move his legs as the alien stretched out its long arm and slapped himto the ground. He tried to twist his body free, but the giant monster gripped him firmly frombehind and swiftly lifted him for a quick inspection in front of its blunt nose before tuckinghim securely into a heavy pouch that hung tight against its breast.

    A chill ran through me as I realized that the hopeless wails of despair added to the panickedscreams filling the cavern were the cries of other people already imprisoned in the alien’spouch.

    At last I managed to regain my feet, but too late. The alien’s claw hung in the air above me.I braced myself in fighting position, slowly, backing toward the now distant cries of mycompanions. The alien hung its gigantic claw down to block my retreat, and I spun, snapping myprimary weapon at the nearest fleshy appendage. My pincer nipped into the soft, unarmored fleshand the alien yanked away nearly tossing me on my head as I lost my feeble grip.

    I rolled and pressed myself against the wall, weapons held high, body low, my legs spread wideall around me. The alien was inspecting its wounded appendage, its other claw, now held outbetween us as it balanced itself on only the two bent lower legs. I took the chance to make mybreak. Turning as fast as I could, I began to run. My companions had all vanished into thedarkness. Before I had taken twenty steps the unnatural softness of the alien's claw slappeddown onto my back with a force that took all the strength out of my legs. I tried to spin, butit had an unbreakable grip on my body. I reached with all my strength to find some purchasewith my weapons in its grotesquely soft flesh, but my arms would not bend far enough. Istruggled helplessly as it drew me up before its horrible flat face.

    The eyes both turned to focus on mine. Where its nose should be was a large flattened circlewith two long thick whiskers poking out of either side and wrapping around behind its head. Icouldn't see that it had a mouth, but still, I imagined that it intended to eat me on the spot.I drew my arms and legs in tight to my body, prepared to strike out if it allowed me withinreach, but it simply shook in apparent amusement and moved me toward the prison on its chest.

    With it’s free claw, the alien released the latch and lifted the heavy cover, revealing thetangled bodies of what must be at least eight people, their legs kicking as they all struggledin vain toward the opening. Staring down into the monster's people pouch woke the memory of mystint as a weaver. I had learned to work grasses into sturdy pouches such as the backpack I waswearing now, and I believe my work was excellent. Unfortunately, everyone else in my classcould build four such bags in the time it took me to build one. Even in such dire circumstancesmy mind produced the incongruous question of whether the giant alien had produced the bagitself, or had it purchased such at some distant giant marketplace.

    I shook off the thought and prepared myself to grab one side of the opening, ready to fight formy freedom with my last breath, but the alien let the flap slap closed. Its body jerked, headcrashing against the ceiling and arms flailing to defend itself from an unseen foe. I wasshaken back and forth several times, then unceremoniously dropped on my back. The breath wasknocked out of me, so for a moment all I could do was lie there and watch as the alien shookits great head back and forth, slapping with one claw against its shoulders, the other clawsupporting it’s weight on the floor, and slowly backing out of the tunnel the way it had come.

    Then I saw her. Flying around the alien’s neck, stabbing with her sword, then dashing awaywith a grace I had never imagined possible. Again and again, she stung its neck then

    effortlessly dodged around its slapping claw. By the time I had regained my feet they weregone. I found myself totally alone. The silence closed in around me as I looked first one way,then the other along the tunnel. Should I go back that way and try to find my companions? Therewas nothing for us there. Even they must eventually return this way. We had walked for twoweeks to get this far, and did not have supplies enough to go back. Or, should I continue onthis way by myself. Was the alien waiting just out of sight in the dark? It occurred to me thatthe presence of a alien could only mean that we were close to the surface. Not that I was anexpert on aliens, but even I knew that aliens rarely ventured far underground.

    I can’t say how long I stood there unable to make the decision. It might have been minutes orhours. Then a voice, like music in the wind drew me out.

    "Are you alive?"

    I had no words to respond. First my eyes located her, sitting on a large rock two meters away.Then my head turned to her, followed by my body and finally my feet untwisted placing me almostwithin reach.

    Her sparkling eyes passed over me answering her first question.

    "Are you injured?"

    I could only stare in response to her second question. I stood frozen in awe. I had never beenthis close to a female before. That’s what she was, I was sure. An actual female. I had seen afew in the distance many years ago, back when they were more common. She was barely half mysize, but her presence towered over me.

    "You can close your mouth now", and I did. My expression changed to a puzzled joy. Not sure ifI were happier to have escaped the alien, or just to be in the presence of a genuine female. Itook a breath, my first since hearing her voice, and attempted a clumsy bow.

    "What’s your name?" she asked and I told her. To my surprise my voice was clear and strong.

    She repeated my name, and to hear it roll off of her tongue was like being dipped in butter.

    "We should get going," she said with a graceful gesture in the direction of the departed alien.My expression must have shown her my concern because she went on to say, "Don’t worry,they’re gone." I met her eyes and believed her. "You sting them a few times and they usuallymove on."

    Of course she had battled the aliens before. All females were soldiers. That’s why there wereso few of them now. The long war with the aliens had taken a devastating toll. Once they werenearly as common as males. We all lived to serve our queen. The males building the cities andgathering food while the females defended territory from the next city. I suppose the femaleslived lives of constant warfare, but as far as we males knew, there was peace. Any battles werefar away.

    Then the aliens came. It was said that they dropped down out of the cloud in unimaginably largeships. I had never found anyone who could give me a good theory of where they came from.Everyone knew that there was only the ground, the air and the endless cloud above. No one couldguess how creatures like this could have sprung to life in the infinite cloud.

    For a generation they were a distant rumor. Then their hives began to grow. The story came tous in bits and pieces from the few refugees who passed near our city. The males were like thecreature I had just escaped. The females were gigantic even in comparison to the males. Theywere the warriors. The massive armored creatures that lay waste to the land. Entire citiesdestroyed in seconds. Whole territories stripped of life in hours. It seemed they requiredflat, bare land to construct their immense hives.

    I supposed I could call myself lucky. When the aliens came for my city I happened to be far inthe field attempting to harvest swift grass. We didn’t suspect that we were homeless, or worsewithout a queen, until the end of the workday when we returned home only to find a featurelessdesert. Since then we had been wandering in numb disbelief. Eventually we traveled too close toone of the alien’s hives and were driven underground.

    "The tunnel opens onto the river just ahead," she was saying, "and we’re far from where thealiens are building at the moment."

    I babbled something about thanks, and dumbly followed her to the end of the tunnel. As she hadsaid, the tunnel opened onto a pleasant river. Upon seeing the bright gray light of morning, Iforgot completely about my miraculous companion and scuttled across the exposed five meters ofrocky sand bar to the water. Once I was safely under the surface of the gently swirling water Ibacked under a large rock and took my first contented breath in weeks. For a minute I justsavored the embrace of the cool water. My armor slowly replenished its moisture with a pleasantache.

    Before I could dig a hole in the sand large enough to hide and drift into a blissful halfsleep, it suddenly occurred to me that there was a female sitting on the beach above. I hadbeen incredibly rude. What was I thinking? Without a thought for other dangers, I scampered asquickly as I could out of my hiding place to the water's edge. I did not leave the waterentirely, not sure if I could bring myself to expose myself to the dry air again just yet.

    She was still there. Sitting on a rock with an amused look on her face. Her expression mockedme with a pout and her astonishingly musical voice caressed my ears again, "I thought you'dleft me." and when I made no reply, "Most males I meet follow me around like a mudpuppy.Terribly annoying. What's wrong with you? Don't you like girls?"

    "I don't know," I heard myself saying, "I've never met one before."

    That evoked the most amazing giggle.

    "I suppose that's true," she agreed. "I've met very few males myself. Come up here and let mehave a look at you."

    I was still crouched under the water with only enough of my head exposed to join in theconversation. Slowly I crept forward until I was nearly close enough to touch her. Her eyescaressed my entire body. I took the opportunity to look closely at her as well. She had thesame basic body features as any male, just smaller and somehow more graceful. Her armor wasunscratched, probably only a few days old. I felt a nearly irresistible urge to touch her, butmore so felt the need not to loose an arm to the fine sword that was sheathed at her side. Shemade a sudden graceful leap to one side. I nearly dove back into the water at her sudden move,but realized before making a complete fool of myself, that she was simply circling me,inspecting me like a bait fish. Suddenly I felt naked, as if my battered, cracked, partlysloughing armor was completely transparent to her, exposing my innermost secrets.

    "You look like you've been through Hell." She remarked.

    I suppose the maze of tunnels we had been traveling through all these days could be calledthat. And I suppose we all looked like death itself since we hadn't been under water for twoweeks. We? In a moment my thoughts returned to the plight of my companions.

    "My friends," I spat, pointing back toward the dark opening in the bank.

    She smiled. "They'll be alright. They have no other choice but to follow us out here. They'llbe along any time now."

    For a moment I was confused, then it struck me, "You really never have been around males beforehave you?"

    She didn't answer, but her expression told me that I was right.

    "They'll hide in the dark until someone tells them what to do." I corrected her. "They'll beafraid to come this way for fear of the alien they saw here, and afraid to go back for fear ofgetting lost in the tunnels. They won't dare move until they realize they are dying fromstarvation. It could be days. "Roberts was the only one of us who might..." again I was struckby the realization that I had forgotten something important. "Roberts! We have to save him!" Iblurted out looking around the horizon for the first time to see if I could still see the alienwalking away. Of course it was long gone.

"You're a flighty one," she laughed at me again.

    "We have to find him." I repeated.

    "We?" She seemed amused.

    "Well, you," I stammered, embarrassed to admit that I had no useful skill.

    "And you'll go back for the others," she stated.

    Wordlessly I looked back at the dark mouth of the tunnel that I had so recently escaped, andthought that I had really meant for her to do that too. My eyes darted back and forth from theterror of the dark tunnel to the angel beside me and only when I realized that I had alreadytaken three steps back toward the water, did I determine that if I was sending her to battlewith the alien, I could not let her see me shrink from a task that held no real danger.

    Somehow I managed to take the first few steps back toward the tunnel. I stopped at the dimshadow line that marked the opening and turned back for one last look at the sky. Thecomforting gray blanket of the ever constant cloud beckoned me to remain outside, but thepresence of the female made that impossible. She was sitting on her rock again watching me withan amused expression. I could see that she really did not believe I could take the next step.So I did. I think it was the hardest thing I ever did, even though my terror of returning tothe nightmare of the caverns was quickly forgotten in the quest to retrieve my companions.

    I returned with almost the entire group of refugees in less than an hour. Turner and Collinshad run further down into the maze of tunnels than I was willing to search, and Johnson hadagreed to go look for them. It shouldn't have taken nearly as long as it did, but most of thegroup was unwilling to believe that the alien was gone. None of them believed my tall taleabout meeting a female. Only when I let them touch my armor to see that I had been refresheddid they decide I might be telling the truth about the lovely river. Then I had hardly beenable to keep up with the group in their wild rush to escape the underworld.

    She was gone. I searched the horizon in vain for several minutes before giving into the call ofthe water. Parker was nestled under my rock. I braced myself to challenge him, but he was socommitted to his bliss that he took no notice of my posturing. After a moment it occurred to methat there must be far better shelters than this first small stone I had stumbled upon and Iallowed the caress of the current to drift me along the shore until I saw a much grander rockto call my own.


    I dreamed of my days as an artist. My instructor had been very patient. He needed to be. Mysketch work was technically perfect, but he insisted that there was no feeling in the drawings.My sculptures never quite looked like what I intended, and in the end the instructor had sentme on to learn to be either a draftsman, where I tended to add more information than myinstructors deemed necessary or a building painter, where I made such a terrible mess on myfirst day that I ended up working in the sewer system that week.

    I awoke to the fading sound of a scream. At first I told myself that it was just the aftermathof a nightmare caused by shadows in my mind of the last two weeks underground. Then I saw thedark shape glide past my hiding place. A small piece of armor with a bit of flesh on it settledto the floor of my pool, and it was immediately clear what had happened. A fish had got Parker.I hunkered down beneath my rock trying to suppress the relief I felt at not having displacedParker after all. After a minute I felt safe enough to retrieve the bit of flesh and I ate itin the safety of my shelter. As I finished the last bite of armor I thought, "I'm going to missold Parker."

    Then I saw another motion. Something passed over the shore in the air. The blurred figureturned and dove directly at me. In that moment my mind played out the immediate future for meas I was devoured by some terrible bird, and my last thought was, "I hate living in thewilderness."

    With a roar the blurred flier transformed into a column of bubbles directly in front of me. Iraised my inadequate weapons in a reflexive defensive gesture, then lowered them in relief when

the fleeing bubbles unveiled my angelic female rescuer from yesterday.

    "There you are," she began. Somehow the water gave her voice a sultry timbre that sent a shiverthrough me. "I've been looking all over for you," she continued. "The others are all ready tostart their training. Lets go."

    And she returned to the air with as little effort as she had used to enter. I was helpless todo anything but follow. Minutes later I found myself looking over the edge of the embankmentgazing upon an astonishing sight. Hundreds of people were spread across the fields. Dozens ofburrows built up at random locations. It was almost a city. I hadn't gone far when I wasaccosted by the largest man I had ever met.

    "Where do you think you're goin' boy?" he bellowed, placing a claw nearly as tall as I was inmy path.

    "I was... just got here," I managed.

    "What's your name boy?" he demanded.

    I told him.

    "That's a stupid name," he challenged. "Now get in that line before I kick your..."


    I recognized that angelic voice. There, hovering above us was the female. The change inWilson's personality was dramatic. A moment ago he was the incarnation of brutal domination,and now he was a grinning shy child dragging at least three of his toes nervously back andforth across the ground as he beamed his tittering devotion upward.

    "Take good care of my friend here," she directed him, "I see great things in his future."

    Her eyes met mine and for just a moment I think I echoed Wilson's embarrassing display. Irecovered myself and managed a casual, "Hey."

    Then she was gone, her musical laughter hanging in the air between us. I turned my impish smileback toward Wilson and all the joy immediately drained from my expression. He was looking at mewith an expression of disbelief hidden only by his obvious need to kill me on the spot.

    "That line right over there?" I backed quickly out of his reach into the false security of acrowd of young boys.

    The slow moving line carried me to a table where a very bored man was directing the mostlyyounger males ahead of me to other lines.

    "What training do you have."

    I had reached the front of the line, but was scanning the horizon again hoping for anotherglimpse of the only reason I was here.

    "Hey!" the bored clerk demanded my attention.

    "What are your qualifications?" he enunciated slowly.

    "Huh?" I offered.

    "Skill set?" his expression showed his scorn.

    "What?" I confirmed his opinion of me.

    "Infantry." He decided, pointing to another long line behind him.

    I stared dumbly at him finally beginning to wonder what was going on here.

    "Go...over...there...and...wait...in...that...line." he condescended.

    I chose not to reply and just walked to where he had indicated.

    "Yeu look like yeu seen some action." The accent was deep north.

    I was not interested in a conversation at the moment. "Uh, yea sure." I reacted.

    "Hot dawg! I knew it!" He slapped me on the shoulder and I was drawn in.

"I'm Nub," he babbled on. "Come all th' way down from th' territories."

    I introduced myself and as several others appeared alongside Nub, he obviously being the mostintelligent of the lot, I could not avoid relating a very condensed version of my travails. Thegroup interrupted me several time asking questions which forced me to jump around awkwardly inmy narrative. I'm not sure if the story I ended up telling started with me in the caverns orended there, and just as I was about to tell of my rescue from the alien, I was distracted bythe female flying across the edge of my vision in the distance. Another question, and I mayhave completely skipped over any mention of the female at all, except to end my tale with herinvitation to come here. That naturally led my asking Nub what was going on here?

    Several members of the group attempted to answer my question all at the same time. The onevoice I could understand said something like, "We're the Infancy."

    At last they parted in front of Nub who led me to look over the top of a low hill. The thicklooks on the faces of my new companions changed to match my expression of awe at thesynchronized motions of the one hundred men below. They were arrayed in a large rectangle eachexactly the same distance from his neighbor. They all appeared to be holding long sticks intheir claws as they spun and stepped all together in a complex martial dance, striking the air,ground, or their neighbor's stick with their own sticks every few seconds. The crack of theirsticks meeting each other and the simultaneous stomp of four hundred feet on the ground couldbe heard even at this distance.

    I'm not sure how long I stood there watching, but it finally dawned on me that I was alone onthe hilltop. Well, not entirely alone. Wilson was standing beside me.

    "Aren't they beautiful," he said almost pleasantly.

    His eyes were not on me so I took the opportunity to back down the hill toward the infancy. Heturned and his eyes pinned me to the ground several meters before I reached my goal.

    "I understand you drove off a dozen aliens single handed at the battle of barren hollow," hedeclared just loud enough for the entire group to hear.

    "I...huh?" was my eloquent response.

    It seemed that the disjointed story of my adventure had been retold and so rewritten severaltimes before it had reached the big man's ears.

    "Imagine my joy," he continued, "to find my lady's favorite among my boys."

    He had closed the distance between us, and I flinched as he placed one arm around my shoulders,turning me toward the group.

    "Do you have any idea why you're here?" he whispered.

    "We're the infancy?" I croaked.

    His grip tightened as his pained expression assured me that I was far from correct. For just amoment I thought he was going to snip me in half.

    "Have you all met?" he asked. Many of the group nodded their heads, a few shook theirs no, butmost just directed blank looks at the two of us. Wilson introduced me. To hear my name from hislips was like being rubbed between sheets of sandstone. Squirm as I may, I could not shrinkfrom his grip. I was proud that I remained on my feet when he finally released me and marchedthrough the center of the group saying, "Come. Get some sleep. Tomorrow at first glow you alllearn to do that!" He turned and pointed dramatically back toward the top of the hill.

    I knew that he was referring to the odd dance beyond but from the expressions of the others Icould see that most of them thought he was just pointing at me.


    In the morning we found ourselves standing in a small flat area between the rough burrows wherewe were required to sleep. Actually, I was not ready to declare it to be morning. The glow atthe eastern edge of the cloud had barely begun. Wilson looked like he had already been awakefor hours, and clearly was not about to allow any of us to get the proper amount of sleep. I

supposed I would have to take a nap around lunch time.

    Nub had taken me under his tutelage and directed me to stand next to him in the front andcenter of a very rough approximation of the rectangular formation we had watched yesterday.Wilson called out my name as he bore down on my position. My armor itched with apprehension. Hewas carrying two long sticks each with one end sharpened. He stopped ten meters away.

    "Well, step out here boy!" he ordered, "Let's us veterans show these children how its done,"and I found myself moving a few meters closer to him.

    He tossed one of the two sticks high in the air directly at me, and I thought I was very cleverto duck out of the way. It crashed to the ground behind me and I watched Wilson with a smile onmy face to see if I could avoid the next one he threw.

    His expression shot fire at me. "Pick...it...up," he growled.

    My smile was washed away as I scrambled to retrieve the stick. When I recovered it and turnedback to face him he had closed the distance between us to barely a meter. I was frozen in fear.He held his stick up in front of him, one claw at the base, one a short distance above. Was heabout to hit me?

    "You hold your spear like this." He bellowed loud enough for the whole group to hear. Some ofthem began to move out of their positions in the rectangle to find a better viewing angle. Iattempted to mirror his grip with my shaky claws on my own stick. Apparently I did it wrongbecause he reached one claw forward and gripped my stick near the center. When I felt himtugging I simply let go. Again, he gave me that look that I had been interpreting as furiousdisapproval. It occurred to me that maybe his face just looked that way most of the time.

    He held the stick out to me again. "Hold the spear tightly."

    I grasped the spear again. He pulled on it and it slipped from my grasp.

    "Tighter!" My rear legs were running away but the others couldn't move.

    I did as he demanded, and SNICK my upper claw cut the stick in two.

    He stared silently first at the end of the stick in his claw, then at the other piece at myfeet. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a single deep breath, then dropped the other halfof my stick at my feet. "Not that tight."

    He thrust his own stick out at me whispering harshly, "Take this one."

    In my terror I had no choice. I grasped at the stick one claw above his, the other below, andSNICK SNICK his stick was in three pieces. I was finally able to take a step back away fromhim. He lowered his head, turned his back to us, and for a moment I thought he was laughing. Hedid not turn back to face us. With a vague gesture he ordered, "Everyone take a spear and getback in formation."

    The crowd rushed forward to a large pile of sticks across the way. I allowed myself to blendinto the current of bodies and having selected the thickest stick I could find, returned to asclose to the middle of the rectangle as possible. I had decided then, that I would never findmyself in the front of the group again.


    For the next several days, we practiced the stick dance that Wilson had taught us that firstmorning. There were only twelve different moves and three ways to grip the stick. By the end ofthe week I could perform the dance as well as any man in the entire camp.

    We also spent a lot of time running. Run up the hill. Run down the hill. Run around the hill. Inever understood the point, but I was not about to call attention to myself by leaving thecenter of the group. We also continually practiced poking holes in a large roll of grass withthe pointy end of our sticks. One day it dawned on me that the rolls of grass were laid outroughly in the shape of a male alien, as if it were sleeping on the ground. I couldn't help butthink that it was not a very bright idea to go poking a sleeping giant with our sticks. Itmight wake up. Still, I refused to bring myself to Wilson's attention by pointing this out.

    Many of the Infancy looked up to me for some reason. I was one of the best dancers in ourcompany, and spent a lot of time during the day helping the others improve their form. Icouldn't help thinking, "soon, they would all be better at this than me."

    I think the stories of my renown had grown to the point of silliness. Any stupid thing I saidin jest would be taken as law. I had to watch who I joked with. It made friendships impossible,except for Nub who actually was quite intelligent as it turns out. He saw through the legendand helped me in my quest to avoid Wilson.

    Finally the itching under my armor became too urgent and I missed the morning run. It couldn'thave been worse timing because that day Wilson himself came to our burrow and led the companyout. When he saw my condition, he ordered me to, "Just stay put," with that same disapprovinglook that he always wore.

    "I'm alright," I had insisted, "I'll be there in a minute," but by then my armor was almostentirely over my head and I could do nothing but roll on my back and kick. When I had finallystruggled out of my skin and finished eating the old shell, I wandered out into camp to find itdeserted. I guess Wilson had planned a special trip away from camp that day for everyone. Itwas just like him to find a way to exclude me, so I returned to the river and spent the rest ofthe day soaking my new armor.

    I don't know what happened that day, but after that, I never saw the original one hundreddancers that had inspired me that first day. All the members of the Infancy seemed upset whenthey returned and I could never get Nub to tell me what was wrong.

    I soon found that I could get away by myself each evening as the cloud first began to darken. Iwould climb to the top of a low hill overlooking the camp and watch for her. Sometimes I sawher flying about the camp. Sometimes not. Most nights I would practice the stick dance there bymyself. It was somehow very relaxing. Then one day my life changed. As I finished the stickdance I heard my name. I turned toward the voice that filled my dreams and she was sittingthere watching me.

    "You have learned the forms well." She sounded pleased.

    I was too out of breath from the dance to gush my pleasure.

    "It relaxes me." I managed, leaning casually on my heavy stick.

    "Yes," she moved closer, "I know what you mean."

    She placed one claw on my stick. "I see you have found yourself a proper spear. Most of theones I see around camp are too light."

    "I broke two before I found this one." I admitted.

    She laughed. "I broke seven in battle myself, before I took up the sword."

    I could only think how embarrassed she must have been to never have been able to use the stickswithout cutting through.

    "I could show you sometime," I chanced to offer.

    "Perhaps," she said with a smile of coming possibilities.

    And she was gone. Just like that. I had to sit until my knees stopped shaking.

    The next evening I had just begun the dance when she appeared. She had brought a stout stick ofher own, and at the moment in the dance when you're supposed to cross sticks with your neighborshe was there and our sticks met with a satisfying crack. My heart raced as she danced aroundme fast enough to play the part of each of my neighbors. I was thankful that my legs knew thesteps so well, because my mind went blank. I thrilled at the crack of our sticks as theycrossed again and again.

    I think we repeated the entire dance three times before she fell to the ground laughing."Enough, enough," she giggled. "Oh, I haven't done that in years."

    My week knees forced me to the ground by her side. She lay on her back in the grass breathingnearly as heavy as me. At last her laughter trickled to an end and she propped herself up on

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