Tiny flakes of it fell onto the stick Lunsa used to tend her poison garden.
Unlike the white ash that drifted from the Serengai or the yellow pollen that speckled her herb beds with aphrodisiac dust, this black snow’s acidic oils stained. Devil’s dandruff, her grandmother-ka would have called it. An ill omen.
Snatching a flake from the air, Lunsa placed it on her tongue and breathed in through her mouth.
It tasted of fire.
She finished uprooting tenacious brambles, winding them like fat snakes around her weathered stick, and tossed them back into the engorged shadows beyond her garden. Her long stalks of coughing goldenrod and feverish woodbine sprang up slowly from where they had been crushed by the brambles, as though breathing in.
Every season, the Serengai’s blood trees crawled closer, and every night, their vicious stickers crept out to strangle her garden.
Not only a garden to her, but also her inheritance. Her grandmother-ka had planted these in childhood and left them for Lunsa to use to cure the sick of their dangerous ailments. She had moved all the herbs she dared. These last few plants, the deadliest and most valuable of potent poisons, would rather die than leave their home soil. And so she tended them, in their deathbed, until the day the Serengai came to overwhelm her efforts and smother them all.
But today, the black flakes did not waft on a smothering wind. They drifted from the King’s River Road behind her. The direction of friends.
Lunsa planted her bramble-winding stick, bid her garden good bye, and descended through a warm clover field, skimming her palms over fragrant lavendula and pink forget-me-nots. Sun filtered through droopy branches to paint the shimmering grasses with gods’ light. Redbugs buzzed soft on the early summer breeze, green-breasted mouse sparrows flitted across the azure sky, and her faithful companion, Asnul, dozed as he hung upside-down from a sturdy cedar branch.
She swung her split basket over one shoulder and made a kiss sound.
The companda yawned and stretched. His upside-down eyes blinked at her, and his mouth curved into a perpetual smile in his pointed, furry, gray muzzle.
She opened her arms.
He let go of the tree with his front claws and found her shoulders, then released the tree with his back feet and swung into her chest with a thump, hanging from her vest. She cupped his gentle body in her arms. Asnul had grown in the last few years—a companda never stopped growing, it seems—but was still much lighter and lankier than an equivalently-sized child. He tucked his trio of expert tree-climbing claws under her softened leather over-vest. His long, mossy fur tickled her cheek like a child’s caress.
She followed an old bucardo trail down the mountainside, taking care as she approached the jagged cliffs down to the Hundred Strokes River. Nimble bucardo plunged straight over, but she turned onto the narrow ledge that marked the King’s River Road and led into her village.
Her village nestled deep in the silent woods of the mist-shrouded mountains, and sun-speckled days like today were rare.
Twisting charms tied to branches celebrated the recent Rain Festival, and the familiar clop-clop-clop of hollow chimes enticed the goddess Eleana to flow her sustaining milk upon their newly planted squash fields. Already, a hearty spring migration of eager, oinking peccari filled her kinsmen with full-stomach hope for the summer. Children darted after a bladder-ball, bubbling laughter, while their mothers stretched black and white peccari hides across bent hoops and worked greasy brains into the leather. Compandas peeked out from vests and belts and baskets, always near to their person’s heart. Peccari entrails boiled in a mouth-watering stew and unmarried girls smoked skins over an ash pit.
They greeted her, “Herbaline,” and chatted amongst themselves as loud as the gossip-birds flying overhead.
Lunsa reached the symbol of their village in its center: The Hollow Tree. Split by lightning to the blackened root, a lesser tree would have died. Instead, from the ash, a new tree sprang up, green and lush and thrusting toward the sky, teeming with chittering swallows, lazing compandas, and life.
The sweet-smelling, softly furred, tri-clawed compandas were gifts from Eleana and infused with the goddess’ life spark. They knew a person’s heart and kept their secrets, and they protected a person’s spirit from malicious devils.
At the village tree was where a newborn baby selected her companda, or heart’s companion, and there was where that companda would return to after the baby grew up into an old woman and died.
You could have a tree full of compandas without a village, but you couldn’t have a village without the companda-filled tree.
This was the tree of hope and the tree of punishments.
The black flakes crossed her mind.
She kissed its wrinkled, charred bark in honor. Then, she crossed the warm earth to her family’s hut and stepped onto her own quiet veranda, alone.
Asnul clambered up the wall and hung himself from his favorite rafter. Lunsa folded away her woven grass bedding, stoked her sleeping hearth fire, and spread out her gathered herbs.
She called down the blessings of her ancestors and her grandmother-ka to whisper wisdom in her ear, and called down her totem, the mouse sparrow, to move her hands in harmony with life. A dusting of incense powder crossed her circular work stone, and a spark lit the powder to release a pleasant, woody smoke.
Thus cleansed, she carefully unwrapped a spear of Devil’s Foot from her basket and used medium tongs to pull out the spines. These hardy spines resisted at first, then fell out easily after she chanted the true name of the Devil’s Foot, “Ala’a sa’ana tasana,” or Blood Drops Stolen from the Unwary. She saved the unneeded spines in a woven bowl reinforced by clay, and set it in her hearth fire to cure. Even painful spines had their uses, and she knew them all.
From the hut nearest hers, the raucous scolding of aunt to daughter, “How many times have I to refill the water pot today? Eh?” passed over her. Lunsa’s own water pot lasted many days with only herself and Asnul to drink from it.
Lonely melancholy faded the sunlight. Her small fire cracked.
She filled the bare Devil’s Foot spear with a paste of dried lavendula seeds for truth, crushed crimson flower for honesty, and honey to beguile the gods. Each ingredient she tamed and controlled by her recitation of its true name. At last, she tied the spear with intoxicating heliotrope sprigs and rested it over the smokiest portion of the fire to cure.
When the sky had turned the color of honeysuckle just after it starts to sour, the village elder stopped by and placed a bowl of peccari stew on her veranda. “Herbaline.”
Lunsa lifted the bowl toward the sky to honor Bor-Alis, god of rugged mountains and of the peccari. “You walked long today.”
She slurped the rich liquid slowly, savoring the fresh peccari hind. Although she could gather any variety of plant, she had to rely on her tribe’s generosity for meat.
Her elder leaned heavily on his walking staff, his joints bent akimbo beneath his long cochineal-red robe. Silver braid feathers and blue dots patterning his body symbolized the hundred-thousand gods, and daily, he spoke to each and every one to ensure the village’s health and success.
“Now is a good season for traveling,” he told her. “The spring bucardo are born and last year’s are fattening. The Blue Fin tribe and the Green Feathers tribe gave both to your grandmother-ka when last she bestowed her blessings upon their sick and injured.”
Her appetite departed. “I’ve not been invited.”
“An herbaline is always welcome. And the roads are safe; no animal will assault you while I pray to the gods.”
She swallowed a lump in her throat. “I cannot teach wife’s wisdom or mother’s magic.”
“Your grandmother-ka named you her successor anyway.”
“I have no apprentice to leave you in my absence.”
“We are well. None have called for the gods’ mercy since the White Moon.” He picked at a scab on his lip.
She set aside her half-finished stew and padded to the warm hearth, poured sweet resin infused with mashed agrimony into its prepared pot, and carried it back to him.
He dipped in a pinkie and dabbed the astringent on the scab marring his intricately tattooed mouth. The silver feathers shifted as he spoke. “We have no need for you. And nothing ties you here.”
She chewed gristle.
In truth, her pack was already braided and hung with the colors of her village: a narrow band of Hollow Tree red flanked by thick strips of Hundred Strokes River blue.
Her grandmother-ka’s instruments were polished and fitted into traveling pouches. Her father-ka’s road boots were reinforced with cured leather straps and fresh reed padding, her mother-ka’s bedroll was newly woven, and Lunsa had gathered seeds of the yellow-flower Asnul especially liked for their walk.
And yet, she was waiting.
“You hunt no animals,” the elder continued. “Bear no children. You beguiled no men at the Rain Festival and aren’t likely to at the Great Hunt, either. Unless you remind our neighbors that we are important, they’ll soon forget to invite us to the harvests.
“And you’ll see your sister again.” The elder set aside the resin and wiped his hands on his robes. “Twin Rivers hasn’t received an herbaline since your grandmother-ka. Surely, they married your sister with an expectation of receiving you.”
“Twin Rivers is far.”
“You are young and strong. And in your heart, you are close.”
Her sister’s bright, strong farewell last Great Hunt still filled Lunsa with bittersweet feelings.
I’ll get myself a good husband and call one down for you too. We’ll build neighboring huts and share children and chase happiness until the day we rejoin our family in Elia. Confident, as always, that she could change their fortunes simply by willing it. Now happily married and expecting their first child, Mara had escaped their family blood curse.
Her family’s misfortunes had begun here, in this hut, in this village, beneath the blackened boughs of the lightning-struck rampike. She too longed to flee them, but truth lashed her to the injustice-soaked ground. Until her wrong righted, her body could leave, but her kannen would wait here, forever split from her body, forever barred from the sunlit path to Elia.
Every exhortation to duty, village, and lost family only wedged in a splint and cracked her spirit.
Sensing her distress, Asnul walked down the center pillar and climbed onto Lunsa’s shoulder, his long claws gentle on her bare skin.
She offered him her last bite of stew. His little nose wiggled. He looked up at her with luminous eyes, acknowledging her kindness, and plucked a stray leaf from her braids to nibble.
His presence calmed her heart.
“It is not the right time to leave,” she said.
A grimace twisted her elder’s face. His gaze fell upon girls stringing practice bows of dried peccari sinew and women whispering the secrets of husband-catching. From the over-crowded hut beside Lunsa’s, her nearest-aunt hustled her eldest daughter-ka’s third set of twins to the night bushes. Their chubby cheeks glowed red from squishing against the family hearthstone. His gaze slid back to Lunsa’s empty veranda, once filled to the brim, now filled only with ghosts.
“Perhaps Twin Rivers is too far. After visiting the Blue Fins and the Green Feathers, you could return before midsummer, laden with their grateful offerings.”
She set aside the empty stew bowl. “I saw black snow today.”
“It must be from the days of cookfires. Bor-Alis blessed us on this peccari migration.”
“This is the first day it has fallen.”
He turned instinctively in the direction of the Serengai.
“The wind blows from the King’s River Road,” she said. “It tastes of fire, though there is no smell.”
“A festival down the road then. Deep Riverbend has shot a blade bear and is roasting it. We should have been invited.” He tapped his walking stick into the ground. “When will you take up your grandmother-ka’s duty?”
The duty he meant was enriching their tribe by plying her knowledge on the other, more distant tribes. Because she was already fulfilling all of her duties to the gods and her grandmother-ka here.
Lunsa stood. Ansul swung from her waist like a belt pouch. She lifted the bowl to the sky, thanked Bor-Alis again, and placed it upside down on the veranda to show it had been drunk dry with no wastefulness.
The elder sighed. “Do you have the remedy for my daughter?”
Lunsa brought out the smooth, cured Devil’s Foot.
His daughter knew her responsibilities to serve the family but had become unable to perform them. Her heart had started talking in its sleep. Its murmurs kept her awake through the night, and she was no longer able to wake early to prepare the family’s morning offerings.
Lunsa handed him the spear. “Hang this above her pillow for three days. On the fourth day, steep it in a tea. She must drink it at dawn, after all the night’s devils have left, and then her heart will tell her its truth, and she must obey. If she doesn’t obey its truth, her heart will never let her sleep again.”
He tucked the spear into his robe, muttering. “Perhaps you should make this remedy for yourself.”
She sealed her lips on her tart answer.
But her unkindness, although not spoken aloud, was yet heard by the gods. It piled up against all of the other unkindnesses she had thought, one stone upon another, and tipped the cascade of ill fortunes tumbling down.
Cries and shouts echoed from down the King’s River Road. “They’re coming! The village has come!”
Her elder hurried to the village center. “Who has come?”
Lunsa’s fleetest cousins, slender girls, emerged from the gloaming. “It’s Deep Riverbend. They’ve all come!”
Her elder positioned himself at the bulbous roots of the Hollow Tree. His knuckles stood on his staff in sharp relief. Lunsa’s tribe spilled from their huts and gathered around the elder, the oldest widows making room for Lunsa nearer the elder in honor of her position, then the younger and infirm, infants clutched to breasts, youth prepared to bolt.
Behind Lunsa’s cousins, the village of Deep Riverbend trudged up the mountain. Their heads bowed and their feet were obscured by dust. A heavily laden girl struggled to lead them. Tear-tracks marred her cheeks, black snow frosted her unmarried braids, and her hastily woven pack streaked with mud.
Lunsa’s elder stepped forward. “Health be with you, daughter of Deep Riverbend.”
The girl nodded and bent over muddy knees for her breath.
“She said Ammen-Alet runs the roads,” Lunsa’s cousins cried. “The whole tribe’s come, with their children and their babies and their elders who can walk and even those who can’t. They’re carrying everything. They’re everyone!”
The elder lofted his staff, and the excited girls quieted.
The Deep Riverbend girl forced herself upright. “The King’s army has come.”
A babe started to wail.
“The Reaping’s early,” an aunt cried, gathering her boys to her.
The girl shook her head hard. “They’re killing.” Her chest heaved. “They’re killing everyone. They burned the village tree. My mother—she went to greet them. They cut her down without even speaking.”
“The King wants our land?” someone guessed.
The girl shook her head again. Grief spilled over her cheeks. “Death runs behind them. All the way to the fork, it’s said. And they’re led by such a general.” She swallowed. “They’re led by the demon.”
A horrified gasp swept through her village.
Lunsa’s gut lurched.
Her elder paled. “The King’s Dog?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said. “I didn’t see him. I was told he’s a giant, and his skin is red, and he roars flames, and his hair is tangled with a thousand horns.”
“He’s come,” came the whispered murmurs of Lunsa’s kinsmen as they spit on the ground and scraped their words to hide them. “He’s come, he’s come for his vengeance.”
The elder looked sharply at Lunsa.
A deep knell sounded in her chest.
He is come.
Asnul burrowed into her neck.
“We should have killed him as a child!” an aunt cried shrilly. “After what he done then—after all he killed!”
The girl hefted her pack. Exhaustion curled her shoulders. “Please allow us passage through your land.”
Her elder grew to his full height. Demon aside, ancient formalities must be answered. “Where are you bound?”
“My sisters and I seek refuge with the Blue Fin tribe.”
“Are your families connected?”
“My uncle-ka married there.”
The elder’s mouth flattened. “None living?”
“We are hopeful… We hope they will remember such connection and be merciful.”
The elder remained silent.
The girl’s face crumpled.
Few living relatives risked opening their homes to those the gods expelled; begging mercy of dead relations strained the limits of charity, especially since Deep Riverbend now lacked a village elder to demonstrate that their expelled tribe had made retribution for their offenses and no longer suffered the wrath of the gods. Most likely Deep Riverbend would be chased off and forced to walk the restless earth, harried by their misfortunes until they scattered and died.
She fought to control herself. “Hide yourselves quickly. We had a little warning from the survivors of the Heron Lake tribe, but we didn’t know these soldiers’ viciousness.” She wiped her cheek, smearing the dirt. “We didn’t know. Please, will you allow us passage?”
Her tribe pooled behind her, stopped up by the elder’s hesitation.
Her lips trembled. “Please!”
Lunsa’s elder tapped his staff on the ground three times. “May our earth fly beneath your feet.”
“Thank your strange kindness.” The girl rejoined the desperate exodus of her village.
Lunsa’s kin gathered around the elder, murmuring their fears. “We knew he would come. Now, who can stop him? Only the gods. Maybe not even them.”
The elder stood tall beside the Hollow Tree, one hand on its blessed wood. “Gather your precious ones. Tonight, we pray our feet run swifter than the cursed demon’s fury.”
The babe began crying again, and this time her mother didn’t hush it. Her relatives cried too:
“Where are we going?” Lunsa’s aunt.
“Twin River will not turn us away. We have living kin.” A quavering uncle.
“Twin Rivers is down the King’s River Road, behind the army!” Another aunt.
“We must run away, like Deep Riverbend,” an old uncle said. “Follow them across the Stone Bridge, turn away from Blue Fin, and descend to Twin Rivers on the sunrise bank.”
The elder listened while the villagers argued. Twin Rivers was far, half a moon’s distance at a healthy young woman’s jog straight down the King’s River Road, and nearly twice so far if they started their journey traveling up to the Stone Bridge, away from it.
But the Deep Riverbend tribe passed before them like ghostly shadows, silent but for their labored breathing.
They had no choice.
“Blue Fin will never let us rest or hunt on their lands,” an aunt repeated for a third time.
Lunsa’s elder tapped his walking stick against the Hollow Tree, silencing them.
“Catastrophe forced our greatest-grandmother-ka from her rich homeland to begin anew at this blessed place.” He patted the Hollow Tree, symbol of their flourishing rebirth. “Now, the kannen of our ancestors once more guide us from undeserved danger to a place of even grander bounty. Once more, we shall replant ourselves and thrive.”
He raised his staff. His solemn eyes landed on each of them, darkly shadowed in the purpling twilight, filling them with the strength of the Hollow Tree. “Let these old feet lead you to our new resting place. My tribe, follow your elder.”
He struck off, intermingling with the Deep Riverbend tribe.
The rest of Lunsa’s kin lingered around the Hollow Tree, speaking quietly, crying.
“Follow,” the elder’s call echoed. “The demon’s fury arrives.”
Children climbed the Hollow Tree and shook out the surprised compandas, stuffing the sleepy babies into travel bags and hanging the adults from every pack and person. Teens uprooted squash sprouts and half-smoked meats in the swiftly falling darkness, balled roots into blankets, lashed tools to bony bucardos, and herded shrieking peccari piglets. The adults gathered together their children, their blankets, their cooking pots, and their sacred carven ancestors’ boxes. Torch stakes lit the night with unnatural desperation.
Lunsa rushed through her family’s house, pulling out her old boots and throwing them back, tossing her mother-ka’s bone pin into the bag and pulling it out again. Although she was lucky to have prepared for leaving, she had packed with the intention of returning. Exodus meant that whatever she left would be gone forever. She debated taking her grandmother-ka’s wedding feathers, a fragile headdress made of delicate tiger-bird and iridescent blue morning-bird down. Her sister had left it for Lunsa to safeguard, believing it would not survive the journey. Lunsa wrapped it between her soft leather festival sash, the delicate bone beads tangling in the feathers.
Her companda watched from the rafters as she kissed her father-ka’s strong posts and her mother-ka’s faithful cauldron and her grandmother-ka’s carven brazier.
Outside, the cries of her kin quieted as they obeyed their elder’s sacred order, and the passing torch-stakes threw monstrous shadows up the walls.
Lunsa held out her arms for Asnul and made the kiss sound.
He watched her, unmoving, his eyes oddly yellow, his little body scrunched into the tightest roof corner.
“Asnul,” she ordered softly, “come down.”
He clung harder to the beams.
Fear sucked her breath. “Come!”
He blinked. The tremble in her arms and the shaking of her hands turned his face away.
She took a deep breath. Her heart did not wish to leave this place, and her companda always obeyed her heart. She called on her totem, the mouse sparrow, whose tiny beak separated the healthful seed from the poisonous bell flower, and she held out her arms again. “Asnul Al-Ansa Xi Heshnul San Ze, come to me now.”
Summoned by the force of his true name, compelled by the gods and the spirits to answer, he fell into her arms. She hugged him tight and carried him from her house for the last time. They did not look back.