Sep 25 2015

Left on the cutting-room floor


Today I seem to be too busy to a) blog, or b) reset the sale price on The Steerswoman. But that’s not bad,  because b) the sale is still on, and a) how about an out-take from The Outskirter’s Secret?

The readers who follow my blog saw this a couple of years ago… but if you’re new, it’s new to you!

It was taken out of the final version, because… well, it wasn’t actually needed, and it did not help the pacing.  And the book was already long.  All good reasons to cut it loose.

But still: I find it fun.  So, here it is (again).

For reference:  the scene was originally in Chapter 25, just after Rowan learns about courting gifts…

After noon meal, Rowan settled down by the fire-pit with her logbook and the dried corpse of a spiny insect called a harvester, intending to sketch and make notes on its structure and observed habits. Hari wandered by, paused to watch without interrupting, then strolled away thoughtfully.

Some time later a small voice said, “Here.” When Rowan looked up, Hari was already gone; but Rowan discovered a flat oblong bug on the ground by her knee, stranded on its back, wriggling eight jointed legs in panic. It was not one she had observed before. “Thank you,” she called out, bemused.

“You’re welcome,” said a new voice on her left. Rowan turned to find Sithy standing before her with a trawler held in one out-held fist, its legs waving above and below the fingers, small head bobbing from side to side.

“Thank you,” Rowan said again, “but I already have notes on this one.” But she had never handled a live one, and carefully took the insect from the girl. The narrow body was cool between her fingers, bending slightly in the middle as the trawler struggled against captivity. It flexed its limbs, seeking purchase, emitting a steady stream of loud, irate clicks.

Sithy nodded once, and was gone. Rowan looked about for someplace to free the trawler, not wishing to leave her work to go to the edge of camp. She gave up, and set the creature down, hoping it would find its own way out. It instantly quieted and froze, standing in place, pretending to be invisible.

When Bodo arrived, Rowan had begun to know what to expect. He stopped at a cautious distance and deposited on the ground half of a particularly large tumble-bug. “Something ate it!” he declared gleefully, then tottered away.

“Excuse me, Rowan?” It was the eldest child, a girl near walkabout age.

Rowan took her offering with delight: A hawk-bug, its four-legged body as large as her hand, the span of its four wings fully four feet wide. “Thank you, this is wonderful! I haven’t been able to see one closely yet.” Unfortunately, the creature’s head had been crushed; Rowan turned her attention to its taloned feet, its pink, transparent wings, veined like leaves, with curious twisting joints at the body.

She looked up again when Bodo returned to his location, placed on the ground something too small for Rowan to see, and left.

“Do you want slugsnakes too?” It was a red-haired boy wearing a studiedly fierce expression.

“I believe I’m concentrating on insects today.” He gave a short nod, and left. Bodo returned with another invisible prize, departed.

Hari returned. “It bites,” he cautioned Rowan, and set his captive down beside her. It immediately attempted to depart; Rowan stopped it by pressing one finger against its carapace. Its feet scrabbled against the earth.

“Wait, what is it?” But Hari had left. She asked the next child who arrived, a girl somewhat older than Sith.

“It’s a grass-hunter.” The insect’s back split as it tried to free the pink wings hidden beneath. “Show it your trawler.” When Rowan hesitated, the girl boldly picked up the bug with her thumb and forefinger, set it in front of the still-immoble trawler. The grass-hunter spied its quarry, and began to circle, ignoring the humans watchers.

The girl handed Rowan her own catch: the beheaded corpse of a small, flying insect, one of the two near- identical types about which Bel had warned her: a flesh termite. “Which sort is this?” the steerswoman asked; but its captor had left. Rowan set it carefully aside, for comparison with possible further examples.

There was a lull, during which only Bodo returned again and again with his tiny offerings, each placed amongst the previous ones. Rowan hurried to catch up her notes with her other subjects of study. She began to draw much smaller, and wrote the notations directly across the face of each sketch. The result was confusing at first glance; to be read, the pages would each need to be studied carefully. It was a necessary tactic, to conserve her paper. As she finished each page, she blew on the ink to dry it, impatient to begin the next.

When the red-haired boy returned, Rowan was ready with a blank page. He presented her with a pulsing white lump, three inches long, on the front of which was attached a small, wingless insect. “Thank you. And what is this?”

“That’s a queen flesh termite.”

Rowan noticed that the boy’s forearms were covered with red, swollen spots. “Did they hurt you?” She became concerned; she disliked the idea of children undertaking danger on behalf of her studies.

The boy’s habitual glower did not alter. He shook his head. “Not much. It’s the other kind that are trouble.”

“Perhaps you should let Mander see to those bites.” One type of flesh termite would bite a human once, then inform the hive that the person was not edible; the other sort lived alone, and would bite and burrow into the skin, where, finding no nourishment, it would die, causing ulceration. The boy had suffered multiple bites from the harmless sort, as they defended their hive from his attack.

The girl brought another headless flyer. “Is this from the hive that –” Rowan searched for the boy’s name “– that Evvie found?”

Both children peered at the corpse in the girl’s hand. “You can’t tell without the heads,” Evvie pronounced.

Hari hurried up, took one of Rowan’s hands, and placed a small black bug on her palm. “It’s a spring-hopper,” he told her; as he left, the creature demonstrated the source of its name by leaping into the air and escaping, leaving Rowan only with the memory of a tiny, seemingly sourceless push and release against her skin. She looked down at her own palm as if it could provide further information.

Sithy returned, walking cautiously, holding one hand out to her side. She seemed to be carrying nothing, and then Rowan noticed a faint, dim cloud floating behind her: a trawler’s shoot, complete with catch. When she reached Rowan, she permitted the shoot to waft to the ground, and the steerswoman acquired two live flesh termites and a trove of tiny, golden-eyed gnats. Rowan compared the flyers with their queen.

Sithy looked up suddenly, spotted someone approaching. She let free one of her rare laughs. “Look at Bodo!”

The little boy was walking with a careful waddle, carrying, as if it were a shield, a flat oval object nearly as tall as himself. On the surface facing out, eight jointed legs thrashed. “Fool you!” Bodo squealed. “Fool you, fool you!”

Rowan stood up slowly, appalled at the size of the creature. “Fool me?”

“It’s a fool-you!” Sithy shouted; and the children unceremoniously abandoned Rowan’s menagerie to gather around the little boy.

Arrived, Bodo became perplexed at how to relieve himself of his burden. Evvie solved this by stepping behind him, reaching both hands around, and taking possession; Bodo escaped under his arms, and the older boy placed the huge insect flat on the ground.

The fool-you instantly retracted its legs, becoming a mottled brown-and-red lump. In redgrass, it would be invisible. “I can see how it fools you,” Rowan commented. She glanced about for a mertutial to consult with; possibly the creature was dangerous.

The children were delighted, and Evvie boldly stepped up and rapped it on the back. “It’s not doing it,” He complained. He rapped again, found a new spot, rapped once more. “Come on, do it.” The fool-you responded by drawing itself more tightly against the ground.

“I can make it.” It was Hari. He placed his own new catch among Rowan’s collection, walked up to the group, all confidence. “You have to stand back,” he directed; the children complied.

Rowan said: “Hari, this thing isn’t dangerous, is it?”

“Not to people,” he assured her.

“What are you going to do?”

“You watch.” He waved her back. “You have to take your shadow away. ”

Hari circled the insect at arm’s length, waving his hand cautiously over the edge of the creature’s body. “What are you looking for?” Rowan asked.

“His head.” An opening suddenly appeared on one edge, under the shadow of Hari’s hand. Within, something wet moved briefly, and the gap closed again. Satisfied, Hari went to the fire-pit, retrieved a small stone from its edge. Back beside the fool-you, he maneuvered himself to the opposite side from the head, and tossed the stone in the air.

The gap reappeared; a bright, flashing object leaped out, up and high, then vanished back inside. “What in the world… ” Rowan’s comment trailed off.

Hari repeated the trick: prepared for it, Rowan saw the result more clearly. A three-inch long insect, colored bright red and blue, flashed into the air, fluttered, and was instantly retracted into the fool-you’s head by means of a thin black line. Rowan studied the mottled creature, her eyes squinting in thought. “How did it catch that bug?”

“That’s not another bug,” Evvie informed her. “That’s the same bug.” Without prompting, the fool-you sent out its minion again, and left it fluttering in the air, enticingly.

“It’s like a lure,” Rowan said. “What is it trying to attract?”

The answer came from the sky: the children scattered with squeals as a hawk-bug dropped from above in a cloud of pink thrashing wings. It clutched the lure, attempted to escape; the fool-you tightened its grip on the ground. The line became taut; a quick tug of war followed.

The hawk-bug tried to abandon its catch, but the fluttering lure adhered to its body, and with an audible snap the fool-you retracted its line. Its flat body suddenly bent upwards in the middle, and the creature leaped into the air, landing on its back in a wild cloud of dust. Legs grasped the captive around the middle, then rotated the struggling form as small pincers efficiently clipped off legs, wings, head, while the children shrieked in gory delight. An appalling eight-inch gash appeared on the fool-you’s underside, and it stuffed the still-moving corpse within. The huge insect rocked forward and back, raising more dust. At the high end of one rock, it nimbly uprighted itself, and resumed its deceptive, flattened stance.

The dust settled, and the area became still again, hawk-bug wings, legs and head strewn about the motionless, mottled lump. “So,” Rowan said, raising her brows, “that’s what eats a hawk-bug. ”

Rowan looked up to find that a number of adults had been attracted by the action. They now stood about, studying Rowan and her young assistants with clear disapproval. Someone said accusingly: “Who brought a fool-you into the camp?”

Most of the children shuffled their feet in guilty silence, but Bodo spoke up, loudly, proudly. “I did! I brought it into the camp!” he declared.

Rowan stepped forward. “I’m sorry, I think I’m responsible. I was studying insects, and the children were helping me. I didn’t think it would cause all this –” and she gestured, “– all this fuss. ”

The mertutial who had spoken glowered: an old man, shaking a gnarled, admonishing finger. “You don’t bring a fool-you into camp,” he declared to Rowan, then caught himself. He shifted his scolding to little Bodo. “If you bring in a fool-you, you get nothing but trouble. Hawk-bugs will come down, or the bait will hit a person and stick. You can’t get it off, no matter how hard you try. You have to wait for it to rot off.” Bodo stared up at the man with apparent incomprehension, fascinated purely by the vehemence of the statements. The mertutial moderated himself. “Don’t ever do that again,” he commanded.

This Bodo understood. “I’ll never do that again!” He was pleased to have a clear rule to follow.

The children dispersed, disappointed, and Rowan returned to her logbook and specimens. She found the grass-hunter gone, leaving behind the head and still-thrashing forearms of the trawler, and the flesh termite queen trembling in death, her once-swollen abdomen reduced to ooze and shreds.

In the final version of the book, that scene was replaced by one sentence: “Rowan spent part of the afternoon seated beside the fire pit, sketching various samples out Outskirts insect life.”

All for the best.  Really, it did the chapter’s pacing no favors.

But if you’re curious about the Outskirts’ insects… there you go.