The sound of his sisters was soon swallowed up by the constant chatter of the plains—mothers calling to babies, birds in the tall grass fighting over food and (this late in the season) the safety of ground nests, and insects everywhere doing every imaginable thing and some things that made very little sense at all. Dung beetles, for one. S’toh understood why they rolled giant balls of animal dung—they fed their young that way—but that didn’t make it any less weird. Couldn’t they have found a better way? And Lord and Lady Mantises were as likely to fight, kill and eat each other as they were to mate. Praying mantis females only ate the male after the mating happened. It was still odd, and very disconcerting, but it least it made its own disturbing sense. But since Lord and Lady Mantises could hardly stand on the same branch together without trying to kill each other, it was no wonder they were so rare, and why many South-dwellers thought they were bad luck for a marriage. If the enormous insects didn’t kill themselves off first, superstitious South-dwellers would. B’den had seen one and wanted to keep it to take home with him when his apprenticeship ended. Laughing, the Archery Master had told him he could, but that Tasa, a Southern woman high in B’den’s father’s household, would accuse him of trying to bring ruin to his father’s happy marriage. B’den very much liked his parent’s happy marriage the way it was, and so had let the giant insect go on its way. The look on his face when the Archery Master made his point, however, had been worth it. Even the other Northern students had laughed.
They had used the Lady Mantis for target practice instead. Ramil, one of the North dwelling boys though he had Southern parents, took down the enormous insect. As a prize he had been allowed first taste of the roasted Lady as the lesson turned to surviving in the plains when food was scarce.
“So perhaps I can bring a Lord or Lady home as a delicacy,” B’den had pressed as he’d twirled a leg between his finger and thumb.
Even thinking about it now made S’toh shake his head. It was perfectly acceptable as food if you were hunting, or when times got lean, but to serve up the huge insect to a Master and his Lady Wife? B’den didn’t understand the depth of Southern disgust for the ever-feuding brown and gold insects. He was only fascinated because nothing in the North grew to be quite so—
That was Sothi’s voice, he was sure of it. But it was low and tight as if there was someone standing nearby and she didn’t want to be heard. But they were on a wide, open part of the road. The only place to hide was on the other side of the steep hill—where he was. She couldn’t be hiding from H’tsi. Not unless H’tsi had gone off the road. But then why try so hard not to be heard?
These thoughts chased each other as S’toh raced up to the broad crest of the hill. From the crest he could see several miles down the road, including the narrower side-path that led to the watering hole less than a mile away.
Including his sisters standing still as statues.
S’toh could hear the chitter of the beads in H’tsi’s hair from where he stood. But there was nothing fearful on the hill. Not that S’toh could see. Still and all it wasn’t easy to scare H’tsi—not so that she’d admit to it anyway. And he had never heard Sothi say his name that way before.
He took a few careful steps down from the crest of the hill until Sothi hissed a warning. H’tsi whimpered. S’toh slowly walked the width of the road, first in one direction then the other, until he saw what had made his brash and bold sisters quiet and fearful.
A snake on the road. It couldn’t be very poisonous, if it was poisonous at all, or it wouldn’t be lying patiently on the road waiting to be startled by his playing sisters. Sothi and H’tsi had to know that just as well as he did, but H’tsi had feared snakes ever since she had overheard someone in the village say that a snake had killed their mother. It was true that their mother had been bitten by a snake not long before H’tsi was born, but the snake had been much like the one on the road now. Hardly poisonous at all. Everyone had been afraid for little H’tsi, still in their mother’s belly, though their mother had a very mild reaction herself. H’tsi had been fine, and their mother had died of too much bleeding not long after. The snakes had nothing to do with it. But H’tsi had heard the story when she was even littler than she was now. At the time it had seemed better to blame a snake than to let her blaming herself. Which was silly, too, so both S’toh and Sothi preferred her to blame the snakes.
“Don’t move, H’tsi.”