The first time I met death was when I looked into my mother's eyes. She was staring at me, clutching my hand so hard that my bones crunched together. She did not cry, and neither did I. Her dark brown eyes never left mine even as my father and aunts wailed around us.
“Marlia, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.”
My mother's voice was strong, as if she was not dying, and then she took a shuddering breath in. Her eyes looked up to the ceiling and she smiled before her chest stopped rising. Air left her lips in a hollow sound that was not really a breath. Not a living one.
“Aiiii!” screamed my Aunt Simi as she pulled at her own hair, “She is dead, she is dead! The Great Shadow has taken her from us!”
My mother's grip was lose, and I stared at her delicate hands that had only moments ago bruised my own with a strength I had never seen her possess. I did not want to leave her, her skin was still warm on mine, but my father pulled me away, telling me to comfort my three hysterical aunts. I was only twelve, what could I do? I tried, but they only slapped my hands away or were too busy beating at the wooden floors to notice me. I watched as my father grieved over my mother's swollen belly. And then......a cry. It was horrible and beautiful. My Aunt Reya shoved my father away, bringing my little brother into the world. He was healthy as my aunt passed him into my arms. He was wet and dark, and when he stared up at me with his big eyes I saw my mother in them.
“You must protect him, Marlia. Do not let your mother's passing be in vain.”
My Aunt Simi sobbed this to me as she dried his face with a cloth, but all I heard were my mother's words.
Do not be afraid.
I groaned and covered my head with a pillow. I knew that voice well—I knew it as well as I knew my own. Below me the wooden floors vibrated as the front door shut, and I could hear the pounding of small feet. I squeezed my eyes tighter.
“Marlia, wake up! You have to see what is happening outside! You would not believe it!”
My brother always thought something was happening. If a leaf fell onto our roof he was the first one to know, and the first to yell it to the whole village. I could hear the rustle of fabric that separated my room from the others before my brother sprung on me. I was ready for him as I was every morning, and threw my blanket as I sat up, catching him mid flight. I laughed and hugged him close to me, grunting when his small body slammed into mine. He squirmed from my arms and leapt up, dancing from one foot to the other. When he spoke to me again it was with his mind and not his voice.
Our own language. Our own secret.
There is something amazing outside Marlia! You have to come see it!
I glanced out my window and then frowned when I saw the sky was only just beginning to lighten.
The sun has not even come up over the tree tops, Trigri. I have at least half an hour of sleep!
This is more important than sleep. Please Marlia, please come see with me!
I have yet to win a battle with Trigri. He is sweet and excitable, and saying no to him is impossible when he looks at you with his big, soft, brown eyes. Sighing I threw the rest of my sheets back in surrender and he gave a whoop before rushing downstairs. He is always in a hurry, like a bird that is afraid all of the worms will disappear after a good rain. I stretched and then stood up. Pre-dawn light filtered through my window like golden spears. I did not bother to look outside. For as far as my eyes could see were trees, and nothing else of interest. Slipping on a dress made of doe skin that my mother had made me before she had died, I ran down the narrow and rickety stairs. They creaked under my bare feet and I hesitated on the last one, bouncing on it slightly. Perhaps it was time to replace them, if father was able to.
“I am coming.”
from the open door I could see my brother's small body leaning dangerously far over the rail of our deck that rested high in a tree. I ran to him, grabbing his shoulders to pull him back.
“Look!” He whispered excitedly, pointing to the forest floor. “Strangers! See their funny clothing? Do they not know it is forbidden to be down there?”
“I suppose they do not...but then how did they get here unharmed?”
Down below, on the ground that is dangerous to step on, were men. Seven in total. Men with horses and weapons and strange clothing I had never seen. They wore long shirts that covered both their chests and heads, making it impossible to see their faces, hair, or age. I had seen horses only once, when I was Tigri's age. Studying them now I wondered how they could support so much weight on their thin legs.
Perhaps they know magic.
I rolled my eyes as Trigri spoke into my mind, his excitement nearly setting my teeth to rattle. Ever since he had heard stories from my Aunt Reya of how our ancestors once had great gifts such as flight, he had been obsessed with finding out how he too could attain them. He thought our ability to speak to each other without our mouths was a gift, but I found it a curse sometimes.
Magic is not real Trigri. Aunt Reya is only telling tall tales. And these men do not have magic. Just very good weapons.
As if they had heard our conversation, several men suddenly looked up at us, and for a moment I thought perhaps they did have magic. I could feel heat climb up my cheeks and I wrapped my arms around my little brother, daring them to say something to me. One man, a man with eyes so green I could see them even from my high balcony, smiled at me as if he knew me. I raised a brow and then dragged Trigri back inside. The sun was already making its rapid track across the sky, and I knew that by now nearly the entire village was awake.
“I am going to go tell Aunt Reya about these strangers! Maybe she will know who they are!”
Before I could stop him Trigri ran out the door and towards our aunt's home. Like everyone else who lived in our village, our house was connected to everything by bridges and walk ways, so going after him was not very difficult—unless he headed for the trees, then he was impossible to find. He was as agile and quick as the fastest, smallest bird when he jumped from tree to tree. Father says he is part monkey, and that is why he never falls from branches. I sometimes believe him. Knowing there was no reason to go bring him back, I prepared breakfast for myself and father and went back to the balcony.
The horses were there, but they were tied up, and the men gone. I wondered who had taken them in. Or perhaps they had gone hunting, though I could have told them it was a fool who would try to do so. Unless you were in the trees, it was impossible to survive very long on the forest floor. Finishing my meal of eggs and bread I made my way to Aunt Reya's home. All around me the village was alive, and the floorboards beneath my feet vibrated and squeaked with their movements.
My friend Ria, who I have known since before I could speak words, waved at me from across the U-shaped divide between my row of her trees and hers. I waved back, pausing. She had cupped a hand to her mouth to be heard over the voices of shrieking children who ran behind her.
“Did you see the horses Marlia!?”
“Trigri saw them first and woke me.”
“Ai, that boy would! He is a worse gossip and busy body than your Aunt Reya! Tell me what you find out!”
I waved my hand in agreement and was not stopped by anyone else. My aunt's home is the oldest in the village, created by the second shaman that ever lived here. Aunt Reya was the twenty eighth. It is near the Great Center, where she could see all, and be seen. The closer I came to her home the more people, walkways, and houses there were. They were all cluttered together or stacked atop one another with ladders to reach the higher ones, and bridges and ropes to connect lower ones. Sometimes, if there was a great storm, the ones on top would fall down. My father said he was glad mother had encouraged him to build our house far away from the center, because there is more room to breath and no fear of something crashing down on you. But it takes much longer to get there, and can be tiring when you are carrying heavy blankets or food during market day.
When I arrived at my Aunt Reya's, there were already a crowd of people outside of the round house, all whispering and shoving at one another as they tried to peek into the windows and open door. I was trying to figure out the best way to get through when I heard my Aunt Simi's voice shout my name from the doorway.
“Find Marlia! She is needed at once!”
The crowd parted for a moment to let my brother through, but he stopped mid run when he saw me. He looked afraid.
“What is wrong Tri—“
“Aunt Reya has need of you Marlia! Come quick!”
I rushed in, worried she was perhaps ill again. It was dark inside, except for the light that came through three round windows and the fire that was in the middle of the room. Aunt Reya was sitting on piles of fur, her long gray hair dangling in front of her thin frame and layers of skirts. When she saw me she motioned me closer. It smelled of smoke and herbs, as it has probably always smelled since the first shaman lived here. In a semi-circle around her the seven strange men sat, with Aunt Simi and Aunt Asai seated on either side of her. Trigri grabbed my hand with both of his, holding it so tightly it reminded me of the day mother had held my hand before she died.
“Marlia, come stand closer to the light, so that they might see you.”
Aunt Reya's voice was deep for a woman, and commanding. Unless she was talking to Trigri. Then she spoke as if her words were made of honey and soft winds. I walked closer to the large fire, unsure why these men stared at me, or why Trigri was frightened. Or why my Aunt Reya shared with me a strange, knowing smile.
“Is this the girl you saw?” My Aunt Reya asked the men.
“Yes.” The man with green eyes who had smiled at me from earlier spoke up. He was not quite a man, I realized, but younger. My age. I was surprised to see that he was still smiling. It sent strange feelings through me that I did not understand. I turned my attention back to Aunt Reya.
“Reya, she has not had her Awakening yet.” Murmured my Aunt Asai. Aunt Simi frowned, nodding her head. Next to me Trigri gave a small whimper.
“The Awakening ceremony is in a month.” Aunt Reya said dismissively. “It is more than enough time. I have seen a vision these past two months and now I know their meaning. Trigri, release Marlia's hand.”
Trigri didn't let go right away, but when he did I was grateful. My hand had begun to hurt terribly. Aunt Reya sat up straighter and her dark eyes bore into mine. I did not like what I saw there.
“Marlia, these men have traveled far to come to our village. They have come for you.”
“Your grandmother, our mother, came from their village and she was a respected healer, as are you. You were to be the next shaman here Marlia, though we hoped to tell you after your Awakening, when you became a woman.”
Aunt Asai spoke now, her tone gentle. Mother used to laugh and say she sometimes thought I was really Aunt Asai's child, I looked so much like her. I liked that I did. She had a delicate face, beautiful light brown skin, and long curling black hair. I was pleased I looked like her. But not now. I could feel my heart beating faster, my palms get sweaty. I shook my head. Aunt Reya made a sound like a clucking chicken—something she did when she was annoyed.
“I saw a great owl with green eyes take a mouse hiding in a tree in its grasp. It did not hurt it. It kept it safe and took it far away to a land of sun. Marlia, you are that mouse and this boy the owl. You are fated together. The Great Star-Maker says it will be so.”
It was so silent after Aunt Reya spoke I was sure all in the room could hear my pounding heart. The young man with green eyes looked away from me now, no longer smiling. He seemed embarrassed. I felt the same. And angry. I could feel my cheeks turn red with it, my blood boil with it in my veins.
“I do not care what the Great Star-maker says. He is wrong. You are wrong.”
“When has he ever been wrong, Marlia? Was he wrong when he saw that Trigri would be as fast as a bird and as deadly as a snake?”
“Was he wrong,” Aunt Reya pressed on, shaking a finger at me, “When he said that your father would become leader of this village? No. He is not wrong. You will marry him as the Great Star-maker wills it.”
Aunt Simi gasped as Aunt Reya pursed her lips, and the men looked uncomfortable. Good. My chest rose up and down as if I had run a great distance, and I glared at Aunt Asai. Her dark brown eyes so like mine were somber, her slender hands held up, urging me to calm down. But she was not the one told she was to marry a stranger. An outsider. My feet knew what they were doing before my mind did, and I ran out of the room, pushing past the gossips surrounding the doorway. My bare feet slapped against the wooden walkways I knew so well, taking me far away from my aunt's house and her horrible guests.
I dashed past people who cried for me to watch out, past my friend Ria who called after me. I ignored them. The bridge I was on led to the north side of the village, where wood became ropes that spanned across the forest as our hunting grounds. My feet knew the ropes well. I was running on them, swinging up on the higher cords as I reached for the top of the canopy of trees. As far away as possible from the village.
When I pushed through the last of the branches, I instantly felt the full heat of the sun on my skin. I closed my eyes and realized tears had been blurring them. I was not sure how I had gotten up so quickly. A wind that was strong and cold brushed my face and tugged my hair back fiercely, as if the world felt my anger and shared it with me. I wished my mother were here. She would stand up to Aunt Reya and tell her she was wrong. She had to be. The Great Star-Maker would not make me leave my family. He would not make me leave Trigri or my father. He could not!
I took in deep gulps of air. Calmed my thoughts. Slowly I opened my eyes. A sea of waving tree tops greeted my view, and birds flew in the deep blue sky. Running away had not been brave, not accepting my fate had not been brave. Mother would have said that to me.
Below me Trigri was calling worriedly. My fear had caused him to be scared too. I wiped my cheeks and blinked back my tears.
“I am here, Trigri.”
I heard a rustling, and then my brother was beside me, his eyes nearly as red as mine.
“Every one is looking for you. They are afraid you went to the forest floor. But I knew better. You always go up when you are mad.”
I opened my arms and Trigri went into them, wrapping his arms around me as I rested my head on his thick, curly brown hair. He hugged me tightly.
“Marlia, they cannot take you away from me. I will not let them. I will fight them all.”
His words made me smile as I squeezed him tight. He did not squirm out, like this morning.
“It will not do any good.” I took a deep breath. I could not be afraid of my future. “If the Great Star-Maker says I must marry this green eyed man, I must. He knows better than we do Trigri, and sees our futures.”
“What if he is wrong? What if Aunt Reya is wrong?”
“I do not think they are wrong.” I looked down at my little brother who never stood still. He was standing still now. I hugged him again.
Trigri, The Great Ones know what they are doing. Even if we do not understand it right away.
I could only hope my words were true. After we had both calmed down Trigri and I went back to the village, where Aunt Reya was waiting for me in our home. I went to my knees before her and put my forehead on the floor, apologizing. She clucked her tongue and told me all was forgiven, that she had been too harsh and blunt in her excitement. Aunt Simi was there as well, making a stew for us all. Then father came in. He looked frailer than usual, paler.
“Your Aunt Reya says you are to be married to a boy with green eyes, Marlia.”
“This is so, Father.”
“He will be good to you, if he is fated for you. That is the way of the Great Star-Maker.”
I could not see how this man would be good. He was taking me from my family. From my home and forest. But I could not say this out loud to anyone. Aunt Asai watched me from her seat by the window, as if she knew my thoughts as clearly as Trigri could hear them. Aunt Reya sent for the green eyed boy named Daegan, whose skin was as white as a petal of a moon flower. I did not like that he was so pale. But his eyes were kind, his smile showed he meant no harm, and when he spoke to my brother and father, it was with respect. There was nothing to dislike about him. Except that he was taking me away.
“Marlia, speak to him.” Aunt Asai had pulled me aside, whispering.
“I do not wish to.”
“How else will you know him if you do not? Surely the Great Star-Maker would not give you some one you could not love. Speak to him. Your mother would encourage the same.”
She was probably right. Straightening my shoulders I tossed my long black hair and walked over to Daegan, determined not to let my nervousness show. He was taller than me when he stood up, and I had to tilt my head back to look him in the eyes. He was laughing at me with them.
“I wish to speak with you.”
“I wondered how long it would take you tae say sumthin'.”
His accent was odd and hard to understand. It rolled like a song, but sounded perhaps as if he had bread stuffed in his mouth at the same time. He laughed when I frowned, and again that feeling was there that I could not describe. I was not sure if I liked it or not. We walked to the balcony where lights from the houses made it seem as if the stars had fallen from the sky to land in the trees. Daegan did not look at them. Only me.
“I hope I'm nae disappointin'.”
“I do not know you enough to be disappointed.”
“You're mad a' mae.”
“If you were marrying some one you did not know, would you also not be mad?”
“I am marryin' sumone I din know.” He rose crossed his arms. “Bu' I already like you.”
I could feel my cheeks flush. I had never had a boy say such blunt words to me. Usually they would steal a glance or a kiss. But never words. I did not know how to respond. I crossed my arms in the same manner as Daegan. It seemed a proud stance that I liked and wanted to copy.
“Why? You know nothing about me or my life.”
“Then tell mae.”
I hesitated for a moment. Did I tell him of my life? Did he truly wish to know? His laughing eyes looked serious. It made me feel that perhaps I could tell him things, and he would not laugh. I told him of my brother—it was easy to speak of him. Then of my father, who had become ill last winter, and how the sickness took almost all of his strength from his body. Then of my aunts. He was leaning against the rail, looking down into the blackness where the forest floor was crawling with deadly, dark things.
“And your ma?”
“Your...” He looked as if he were trying to get his tongue to work. “Muther.”
“My mother....” I cast my eyes to the floor. Swallowed a lump in my throat and blinked back tears. His large warm hand took mine, and I looked down at it. Why did my skin tingle? Like it does when my hand falls asleep. He seemed surprised too, for he let go quickly, flexing his fingers.
“She was the woman who you were speakin' with before mae. You look like her.”
“That is my Aunt Asai.” I looked away from him, across to where my friend Ria was playing with her brothers on the decks. “My mother died when I was twelve.”
“Did she go on the forest floor?”
“No. She....” I could not get the words out. It hurt to say them. I shrugged my shoulders uncomfortably. “Childbirth is what killed her.”
Daegan said nothing, but I felt him move closer to me, then his hand was on my shoulder.
“I'm sorry. Loosin' a parent is....hard.”
“You have lost a parent?”
For a moment I wished to put my hand on his shoulder as he had done for me, but his green eyes told me he did not wish the comfort. Aunt Reya called us in then, and there was no more talking about parents. But I saw him differently now, and it confused me. He was more than he seemed. Aunt Asai caught my eye and gave a soft, knowing smile. Perhaps many people were more than they seemed.