By Blood We Live Page 37

High human spirits dropped a little. Dropped further when the assailants found four more of their number dead, suddenly, throats ripped out or bellies opened, when they hadn’t actually seen how that was possible, when they were forced to concede that they hadn’t, actually, seen that happen.

Mooning and tongue-flapping ceased. Celebratory gibbering petered out. One of your lot, wearing feathers in his hair and a necklace of small bird skulls, flung his spear at me. I caught it, cheerleader twirled it, then sent it back at him with such force that it went straight through his skull, splitting his forehead and cleaving his affronted brain, nicely, en route. Group shock. Perhaps because the feathers testified to chieftainship the bisection of this particular noggin produced a pivotal dip in morale. The remaining humans fled, some blubbering, some screaming, some in bug-eyed silence.

I turned to see the werewolf forcing herself backwards off the snapped tree limb that had pierced her just beneath the ribs and come through slightly to the right of her spine. With a moan, she collapsed on her back then rolled onto her side, gasping. I went to her as if in fluid obedience to an inevitable choreography. With, I imagine, an inane or beatific smile on my face. I felt—in those rare split seconds when I wasn’t wholly dissolved into the experience—full of uncomplicated warm innocence.

“It’s okay,” I said to her in my own language, despite knowing she wouldn’t understand me, while the ghostly collective of my vampire peers went: What the fuck are you doing? “The humans have gone. Let me help you.”

(We didn’t stink to each other in those days. That came later, when the species war was already a thousand years old and the vampire ruler Hin Kahur implemented howler aversion therapy: Newly turned vampires were tortured for weeks and months; each time something excruciating was done to them they were gagged and hooded with gammou-jhi hide, saturated and coated with the creature’s urine, faeces and the fluids from the sex organs and scent glands. Within a hundred years the therapy was no longer necessary. Even brand-new vampires found the smell of a werewolf unbearable. Conditioned response morphed into sensory hardwiring—go figure. There’s plenty of post hoc vamp science that attempts to explain it—my friend Olek, the oldest vampire egghead, has a theory that it’s like the experiential formation of neural pathways in the brains of newborn human infants—but whatever the explanation, there the phenomenon unequivocally is: to vampires, werewolves absolutely fucking stink. And though the blood-drinkers’ gammou-jhi stereotype is a moron, it didn’t take his species long to copy the aversion method, rendering the olfactory feelings mutual. However, when I met Vali all that was still in the future. Our races didn’t socialise with each other, and there was natural competition for prey, but we managed as best we could simply to keep out of each other’s way.)

“I know you can’t talk,” I said. “And I know your wounds will heal. But we should move in case they come back in greater numbers. Can you walk?”

She couldn’t. She’d lost a lot of blood through the big wound, and by the time I was done pulling out the spears and darts she’d lost more—along with consciousness. I wondered what language she spoke in her human form, what tribe she was from, how long she’d had the Curse. I wondered—astonished at myself, since it was risibly irrelevant—what she’d look like when the moon set. What she’d look like as a woman.

I tore a leg off one of the humans, plucked a couple of hearts and tongues and stuffed them into one of their furs. I debated taking her own severed hands, but closer examination revealed they were decomposing already, and besides, it was common knowledge that gammou-jhi, like vampires, could regrow anything (apart, obviously, from a head) overnight. So I left the forlorn things where they were. (Later she said to me: I think there must be a place all the parts go, all the hands and feet and hearts and eyes. They’re put together to make whole creatures, who carry the confused memories of all their original owners …)

The sky said seven hours till sunrise. Two hours less to the setting of the moon. There would be a second and possibly more awkward introduction.

I picked her up, slung her over my shoulders and set off.

31

MY NEAREST EARTH was four miles away in a cave in the hills. Unburdened and going at a sprint (we’ll have to talk about flight later, though I already know I’m going to make a devil’s arse of explaining it, and in any case these were the days before I could do it) a journey of a few minutes. Going carefully with a nine-foot gammou-jhi across my shoulders it seemed to take forever. I wasn’t tired when we got there, but small muscles I’d forgotten about had woken up and were stretching and blinking, astonished they’d slept so long. When I laid her down on her side her eyes opened. They were dark, their lights still a little adrift. I knelt beside her.

“You’re in a cave in the hills on the side of the river where the sun goes down,” I told her, this time in the tongue of the tribe who’d been chasing her. “You’ve been hurt, but as you know, you’ll live. I brought meat. It’s here if you need it.”

The cave was dry, and smelled of icy stone and the wild sage that grew over the entrance. Now of her, too, a complicated odour: her bitter canine blood, yes, but also something that just when you thought it was sly and fruit-sour hit you with a dash of brine—then astonished the back of your throat with maddening sweetness, like too much honey, so that you could hardly breathe. I’d never smelled anything like it. It sensitised my face. My idiot face. My tranced, beguiled, undone face.

Nonetheless the long moment of pure being was passing and the strangeness of what I was doing was beginning to assert itself. I’d never been this close to one of her kind before. The big totemic head looked bizarre lying still, blinking, jaws open. I looked down to where her hands had been lopped from her wrists. Two new nubs were sprouting already. Even with my hearing I’m sure I only imagined catching the whisper of furious cellular repair. I’d lost a hand more than once down the centuries (although never both together) and supposed regeneration to be the same for her as it was for me, a sensation as of millions of tiny insects hurrying to form a very specific complex cluster …

“I can’t explain this,” I said to her. I felt hyperreal and precarious, repeatedly close to laughter. I’d been picturing myself trying to explain it to Amlek and the others. I don’t know what made me help her. I just found myself helping her.

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