[Story] Story a Week 33 – Monkey

“Hey Xyliah,” Berwick called across the clearing. “Come and take a look at this.”

They were enclosed on all sides by lush jungle, very like those in Stranglethorn, except the trunks were not wood at all, but a sort of tough reed. It was not nearly so warm here either, even now in the height of summer, the nights got chilly enough that they needed extra blankets. But it did rain more here, as they had learned on their first few nights. After their entire camp, including their bedrolls, got soaked, they relocated atop a rock outcropping. There were wild animals too, porcupines that waddled around the camp in search of food, and enormous moths, which were startling but harmless. Berwick had even seen a tiger once, at dusk, its eyes alight with the last remnants of the sunset. They were both armed in case of such dangers, but it hadn’t caused them any trouble. It was a unique place, somehow both familiar and foreign. Several years ago, right after his escape from Dalaran, they had lived here, but it was along the beach, and felt like an entirely different place than this. Berwick had finally agreed to return to the Ghostlands, but camping at the school wasn’t really what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to get back to hunting treasure, the one thing he’d ever really been good at. But it had been a lot more difficult than he’d imagined, and he worried that he’d lost his knack for it.

None of his old spots had produced much of interest, and while they’d found a few scrolls and pieces of pottery that were interesting, nothing yet in Pandaria held the promise of real money. Berwick was hoping that changed soon. They had enough to get by, but he wanted the feeling of permanence that their own house would provide, whether it was in the Ghostlands or somewhere else. Xyliah always said she didn’t need one, but he thought she should have one anyway. Besides, he was sure she’d like it once she got used to the idea.

Beneath the carpet of moss and vines, he’d found stone — that wasn’t so unusual in itself, but it had obviously been carved and shaped. The surface was smooth and rounded, and he could see some carved lines though he wasn’t yet sure what they were.

Xyliah brushed the dirt from her hands onto her pants and hopped down from where she had been digging. She’d already discovered a small stone chest — unfortunately broken, but the latch could easily be replaced — and some small jade statues. These were very common and not especially valuable, but people back home would probably pay well for ones with pleasing subjects or that were particularly well carved. “What is that?” she asked, pulling away some of the moss.

“Looks like it might be a statue,” Berwick said, scratching his chin. “Or at least part of one.” They both worked to loose the carved stone from its bed of vegetation, untangling the roots and vines from the cracks. Before too long, they found themselves staring at five long, carved stone toes.

“It’s a foot?” Xyliah said doubtfully. “Who would want a statue of a foot?”

No one, that’s who. And it was an odd foot, at that — the toes were extremely long, and one stuck out at an odd angle. Studying it, Berwich reasoned that it was meant to depict a hozen, one of the monkey-like people that inhabited these jungles. They’d not had much contact with them, thankfully, but he’d seen them swinging through the tops of the trees, their spears slung over their shoulders. They hooted and whooped, making their presence known to the entire forest.

“I think it’s been broken,” Berwick said, peering around the far end. The entire thing was massive, almost six feet in length. If it was only part of a statue, the whole thing must have been impressively large. “Maybe the rest of it’s here too–” he gestured around the clearing, to the other small hills. It would take hours to find and uncover them all, but Berwick’s heart raced at the prospect of it — a mystery statue, perhaps from a temple? And where there was one statue, there were usually others. He did not know if it would be valuable, but at least it was exciting.

[Story] Story a Week 32 – Flower

Simon surveyed the wall of the florist shop with feigned interest. The long wall was fitted with rows of little metal holders displaying the various blooms that could be added to arrangements. They were sorted by color, so the wall progressed from pinks and reds down into oranges and yellows, with a handful of blues and purples at the far end. Sure, it was nice. Nice and safe and achingly pedestrian.

The florist bustled over to him the moment he rang the little bell above the door when he entered. “What can I help you with today?” she asked, far too cheerfully, Simon thought.

He rather doubted that she’d have what he wanted, but the trouble was he didn’t know himself what exactly that was just yet. His hope was that she might help him narrow it down a bit. “I’m looking for something really unusual,” said Simon. “You know, exotic.”

She began plucking stems out of the metal holders on the wall. Musas, bird of paradise, tiger lily — ugh. “What’s the occasion?” asked the florist, still gathering flowers into her hands.

“It’s for my boss,” Simon said, forcing a smile. Thankfully, the florist’s back was still turned, so if it looked fake, no one was the wiser. “One of those guys that has everything.  So I need something really rare if I’m going to make an impression.”

The florist nodded, moving over to the large glass case. “We do have a selection of orchids. These are a bit more expensive, but they’re certainly something different. I doubt he has one of those!”

Simon peered at the orchids through the glass. They looked rumpled, sad, and deflated. They were also domestically grown, he was certain. But he didn’t want to be rude. Or be too memorable. “I don’t suppose you have anything from a rainforest, something like that?”

“Oh dear, I’m afraid not,” said the florist, still unnervingly cheerful. “I’m not sure where you’d find something like that. Maybe the arboretum?”

He nodded and thanked her on the way out, but he knew they didn’t have what he needed at the arboretum, because he’d already checked. While they did have a nice variety of rare and unusual plants, he’d been to their greenhouses on many trips and never found anything new. The problem was that he didn’t have a name, only an idea. And it needed to be rare enough that no one would suspect — the perfect gift.

At home, he made his usual afternoon rounds, watering his own plants, removing dead leaves and checking for insect pests. Maybe someone on his plant forum would have an idea. They were all, like himself, avid gardeners with a keen interest in plants and their quirks. Of course people had their particular favorites and areas of knowledge. He clicked down to his favorite sub-forum and posted a message. Within a few hours he had replies, and one linked him to an online vendor in Asia. The browser’s translation did little to help; it was a vast catalog of cuttings and seeds from plants native to the region. There were photos, but no scientific names, and the descriptions seemed to list only their medicinal uses. Not especially helpful, but Simon pored through each listing, searching for something suitable. They were expensive, too — he had to do the currency conversion a few times to make sure he’d got it right. They ranged from around twenty dollars, most around fifty dollars, some as high as two hundred and fifty for a handful of cuttings or seeds. Seemed like an expensive risk if they wouldn’t grow, and he didn’t know the names, so he couldn’t research the correct amount of sunlight or pH or soil type. Simon paused at a listing for the colorfully named “Emperor’s Final Decree”. It had big, showy blossoms, red with black centers and gilded edges. Maybe a little unusual for a bouquet, but that’s what he wanted, wasn’t it? The stems looked long and strong enough to suit a vase. The seeds were also four hundred dollars. Simon frowned, but clicked the “Add to cart” button anyway.

While he waited for his four hundred dollar seeds to arrive, Simon set up an area of his basement for their nursery. He brought down his best lights — a variety of colors, a few different intensities — and prepared beds with different types and pH of soil. He kept meticulous notes and labelled each container with the information. With luck, at least one of them would grow. He also searched online, but without the Latin name he only found folk stories and legends. These were interesting, and gave him hope for the final result, but they didn’t tell him how to actually care for them. Most exotic plants were finicky, that’s why they were rare and valued. If they were easy to grow, everyone would have them. Maybe not this one, though, Simon reasoned.

The seeds, when they finally arrived, were ordinary looking — black, oily spheres. He handled them with gloves, just to be safe, and always wore a respirator when he opened the section of the basement where they’d been planted. Waiting for them to sprout was nearly intolerable, but they did, finally. They preferred rainy and hot conditions, medium light to replicate the jungle floor, and smooth, silty soil. Simon tended each delicate sprout with the greatest care, inspecting them several times a day. It would take months for them to reach full size and begin blooming, but barring any catastrophe, the most dangerous stage of their lives was over. Now, it was only a matter of waiting until he could make that perfect, deadly arrangement.

[Story] Story a Week 31 – Dull

The Harrier frowned at his knife as he went to cut the twine from the package of parts on his work-desk. It had taken some sawing to get through, and the ends of the twine looked frazzled and frayed. Though it wasn’t his best knife, it was still a good one — he didn’t own any that weren’t — and it held an edge well. It must have just been too long since he’d remembered to sharpen it. That, he realized, or someone else had been using it in the meantime. That was possible, Pup was the most likely culprit, though he had a blade (or two) of his own. Or Rose or Josie could have just grabbed it off his desk for quick jobs, they sometimes carried their own, but not always. What reason was there for them to carry a knife around the shop? Going through town was one thing, but not here.

The shop was safe. He frowned at that word, too. Safe was boring, safe was predictable, safe was — like his knife, dull. The Harrier fetched his sharpening stone before putting it away, so he wouldn’t be surprised by it being dull when he next reached for it. Nash had pointed it out before, but he’d dismissed the idea then. He was still juggling shipments at the docks, still smuggling and re-selling. He hadn’t gotten dull. But like a knife, you could never really be sure until tested — and he had to admit that he did feel dull. The shop had meant to only be a cover for their other activities, but it had been profitable enough to take up most of his time. Especially around the winter holidays — which would be coming up soon enough — he had to work on clocks and watches full time to keep up with the demand. The money was decent, not as lucrative as other ventures, but it was steady.

He drew the blade along the wet stone, hearing the satisfying rasp of it against the metal. But what was he supposed to do about it, exactly? He’d been away from the game long enough that he couldn’t be sure of his street contacts. Things like straight up robbery or blackmail were out, they were just too dangerous and too easily tracked back to him. More importantly, any risk he took would also come back to everyone else — to the shop, to Pup, to Rose. And to Nash. Being a sin’dorei in Silvermoon was dangerous enough. To thumb his nose at fate by committing illegal acts was something else. He couldn’t be the one responsible for Nash being discovered, and for the rest of them being arrested for hiding him. Nash always swore he was never caught, but if he found trouble himself, Harrier was certain that he wouldn’t turn the rest of them in.

But didn’t he miss it, just a little? He had to admit that he did. He missed the danger and uncertainty, his heart racing with anticipation in the moments before they moved. He missed his talks on the rooftops with Josie and Nash. He missed sneaking Pup out past his bedtime. It was a risk that had brought him to all of this, his failed attempt to rob Rose. He’d found something much more valuable, but what was he doing with it? Nothing, that’s what.

Nash still went out most nights, sometimes he came back and sometimes he didn’t. The Harrier never asked questions. But tonight, he’d ask to go along. Maybe an opportunity would present itself.

[Story] Story a Week 30 – Graveyard

Curiosity brought Stormpelt further away from the town. She had seen very little of her leader and his family, though she sometimes saw them from afar. There was a little hill she liked to sit upon and watch the town; they were mostly awake at night, like she had been once. She still feared the people with the sharp spears, though they usually did not approach unless she got too close to the town. The pup was big now, old enough to come out of their den and run on his own. Stormpelt saw him sometimes, with his mother. She could not be certain, of course, but they looked happy to her. They didn’t need her to protect them any longer — they had the town and the people with sharp spears. In fact, they probably never thought of her at all, and the realization left her feeling restless. Was it sadness? Perhaps it was, or something like it. Her first master had betrayed her, leading her to this place in between alive and dead. Now it seemed the second had forgotten her. That was not as bad, but it still hurt. Stormpelt did not wish to give up on him just yet, however. He had saved her, and she had sworn to follow him and keep him and his family safe. There could be danger lurking here that she had missed, she could not afford to be complacent. 

Dawn rose over the dense forest, illuminating the dew that clung to the grass and low brush. Stormpelt knew it would not be long before the leaves began to turn color and fall to the ground. Then the rain and the wind would come, and she would have to seek shelter. While she could not really feel the cold, being wet was still unpleasant, and Grub Grub preferred to be warm and dry. The trails of deer — and perhaps their predators — were visible through the grass where the dew had been brushed away by their passing. Stormpelt faintly remembered the smell of them, the excitement of finding a path and calling to the rest of her pack, noses all to the ground as they hunted. Those days seemed impossibly long ago, just a fading memory. One day she would be dead longer than she had been alive, and she worried that she might forget everything good from those days. She did her best to hold onto them, but scents were the most difficult. No matter how she tried, she could not smell them as she did then, they were dull and faded.

Stormpelt moved past some crumbling stones, in a place she did not recognize. She knew the stones had been put there by people; they were carved and arranged into buildings and pillars. Or they had been, once. Now they were a jumble, overgrown with vines and thorns. Why had the people left? Stormpelt didn’t know, and the stones gave her no answers. The grass grew soft and green between the stones, and she thought she might rest there among them, not that she had to, but because it was so lovely with the morning sun. Something caught her eye though, further back beyond the ruins of one of the buildings. More stones, but these were not fallen, but stood on end in the earth. Words were carved into them, and though Stormpelt could not read them, she knew at once what they were. She had seen such stones back in Silverpine. They were graves, marking the places where bones lay beneath the earth. A place for the dead to rest at peace, not to wander as she did. Stormpelt went among them carefully, her nose to the ground. She took care not to knock any stones over or stand where she thought someone might be. What would they think, if they could see her? But she knew they could not. They were somewhere else, wherever people went when they were really dead. She liked to think they were warm and happy and peaceful, wherever they were. They could not feel cold or wet or abandoned any longer. Even so, she felt a strange sort of kinship with them. They needed someone to keep watch over their resting place. She could guard the stones, pull the vines from them and put them upright if they fell over. She could ensure that no people came to walk over the bones or dig them up. She would be their guardian and their keeper, for as long as she was able.

[Story] Story a Week 29 – Ship

[[ A story from Vellira’s privateer days, before she joined up with the rangers. ]]

“Vellira,” said Captain Redblade from the deck below. “I’ve a surprise for you when we return to port.”

She was perched high up in the rigging, polishing and replacing the metal fittings that held the ropes in place. It wasn’t usually the kind of job she should be doing, but she enjoyed being up high — it seemed that she could see the entire ocean from there. And she was one of the few crew members small enough to navigate the narrow spaces between the sails, ropes, and beams. Vellira was puzzled by what the Captain said, but she couldn’t ask him, he’d already moved up toward the bow to speak to the crew working there. She had a feeling he wouldn’t have answered anyway, if it was supposed to be a surprise it would ruin it if he told her. But it wasn’t her birthday, nor any other special day she could think of. If it was for everyone, he would have told the whole crew, but he’d said it was for her. That was the intriguing part. It surely wasn’t fancy dresses, or shoes, or hair ribbons. She’d never been interested in things like that, even as they sometimes plundered them from the holds of ships they’d intercepted. When she’d been very young, the Captain had offered them to her, but she made a face. Knives were much more interesting, maybe even a pistol. Vellira had never had one of those, they already carried powder for the cannons, so she’d been hoping to get one. Still, why would he make her wait until port for that? It didn’t make sense.

Vellira finished polishing the last brass fitting and gathered up her little can of polish, and rag. There was a lot of work to be done, there always was. They were due back in port soon to repair the major damage; some planks cracked in the bow from a close call with some rocks, a few of the little round windows had got loose and needed replaced, and the whole ship needed re-tarring. Most everything else could be done while they were out, and as no ships had been sighted yet, now was the time to do it. Vellira felt that she knew every board of the ship, worn and shiny with decades of wear, and perhaps she did. She’d been living and working there since she was six years old, and her mother’s family sought her father out to raise her. She did wonder, at times, why they preferred that a tiny child live at sea with privateers, but she wouldn’t complain. It was certainly much more exciting than an ordinary land-bound life. She’d have had to sit in lessons all day, and probably wear gowns and learn to eat with the proper fork and how to hold her teacup the correct way. The Captain had taught her to read and do numbers, but she also learned how to navigate by the stars, how to know if the weather was changing, how to tie knots and throw knives. She’d also seen more of the world than she ever knew existed. But there was more out there, and she was excited to see it.

They pulled into the busy Quel’danas port as the sun was going down, the water blazing red and orange like fire. Vellira thought the ocean never looked so beautiful as it did then. She stood at the bow, eager to see what surprise awaited her. The docks were crowded with ships and boats of all shapes and sizes; fishing boats and cargo ships and little sailing ships with fancy sails for the rich people to take around the bay. There was one that stood out among them, though — a fine three-masted ship, sleek and narrow. She was large, but due to her shape, Vellira was sure that she was quick and agile in the water. And she looked brand new, too. The wood still gleamed with sap, the sails bright and clean white.

“Do you like her?” the Captain asked, coming to lean on the railing beside her. “The Crimson Dawn.”

Vellira nodded. “She’s beautiful. Do you know who she belongs to?”

“You,” said the Captain. “Well — one day. Not just yet. I have to die first.”

She blinked at him. “You mean it’s ours?”

“Mine at the moment, until you sign your own contract with Silvermoon. Or I die. Either way.”

“Don’t say that,” Vellira said, nudging him. “You aren’t going to die for a long time.”

Though it would be a little sad to leave their old ship behind, the place she’d lived for so long, it was exciting to have a brand new ship and learn all of its little secrets.

 

[Story] Story a Week 28 – Apple

[[ The horror convention that I went to last summer is happening next week. I’m bummed that I’m not able to go this year, but I am excited to be working toward my goal to write some more in that genre. My word this week was “apple”, and I wondered if I could make a scary story about that. ]]

Noah steered his scooter down Hickory Lane, kicking the pavement to work up speed. Hickory was the best for riding, because it had an incline that was enough to get you going fast, but not big enough to be scary. You did have to keep to the center of the street, though, because the edges were bumpy from roots growing out into the pavement. There was also one spot where they’d patched a hole and the pavement wasn’t completely flat, if you hit it the wrong way or going too fast, you’d be in for a nasty spill and probably some scrapes. And then he’d have to explain why he was riding all the way over on Hickory to his mom.

The other thing was Mrs. Waller’s house. It was huge and old-looking, the paint weathered and some of the shingles missing off the roof. The yard was overgrown and dotted with weeds, and the whole place had a faded, tired look about it. Two cars, just as old-looking, stood in the driveway, but they hadn’t been driven in a very long time. Grass grow up under the tires and through the cracks in the driveway’s pavement. Noah had never seen Mrs. Waller drive either of them, though he did see her often walking along the sidewalk picking up cans. This afternoon it looked as though she was returning from the grocery store; she carried an assortment of mis-matched bags in both arms. They all looked to be ones she had made herself, either with yarn or cloth, one seemed to be denim from an old pair of jeans. Mrs. Waller walked slowly and deliberately down the shaded sidewalk, shuffling at an impossibly slow pace. Noah stuck his foot out and swung his scooter around, about to search for another place to ride. Though he didn’t really believe his friends’ insistence that Mrs. Waller was a witch, he did feel somehow uncomfortable watching her struggle.

As if sensing his hesitation, a jar tumbled out of a purple yarn bag and crashed on the sidewalk. Mrs. Waller made a little cry of surprise, and then dismay, seeing the smashed jar and its contents seeping out. What if that had been his own grandma needing help? Noah reminded himself. He propped his scooter against a tree and ran over to Mrs. Waller. “Let me get some of those,” he offered, gesturing toward the bags.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Waller, and her expression brightened immediately. “Bless you. They never seem so heavy until I start walking,” she said, handing a couple of the bags over to Noah. She gave the broken jar another forlorn look.

“We’ll pick that up after the rest is inside,” Noah suggested. He couldn’t help but sneak a glance into the bags he was holding. Did witches eat regular food, or frogs and stuff? Of course it was just regular food, for the most part. There were some powders and a strange dark juice without a label, but the rest of it was normal things. He looked in again as Mrs. Waller searched her purse for her house key. An apple rested in the top of one of the bags — just one apple, not in a bag either. Noah’s mother often bought them for his lunches, the mushy red kind that always got bruises. Usually he hid them in the trash can at school, though sometimes he would huck them over a fence as he was walking home. Very rarely did he eat them, but this apple seemed to beg to be eaten. It was huge, first of all, probably about as large as three of his fists. The skin was gleaming and translucent, a pale green fading to yellow, and one side was pink as if the apple was blushing. He could smell it, too, a sweet honey scent that made his mouth water. It was probably the best apple he’d ever seen. Noah considered asking where Mrs. Waller had bought it.

Finally she jiggled the door open, and Noah set the bags down on the counter. He opened cupboards where she pointed and put the things away. He didn’t ask what the weird powder or juice was, he figured they were some kind of old people thing. His own grandmother took about fifty different kinds of vitamins every day. He couldn’t help but wonder about the apple, though.

“Where should I put this?” he asked, not daring to touch it.

Mrs. Waller smiled, the lines around her eyes crinkling. “It looks good, doesn’t it?” Noah nodded. “You know, it is said that the fruit Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was an apple.”

He vaguely remembered this story from when he’d had to go to Sunday school. Moreso, he remembered seeing the picture that the teacher had held up, marveling at the menace of the snake, the way it coiled around the branches of the tree. Also, both the people had been naked. They had leaves covering their things, but the woman’s boobs were showing. Noah couldn’t believe they’d shown that to a bunch of kids.

“You take it, dear,” Mrs. Waller said. “As a reward.”

Normally, he thought old ladies were supposed to give out candy. That’s how it went on the commercials anyway. His grandma usually gave him jelly beans, and he used to hunt in her purse for them. But this apple seemed even better, more special than candy. He picked it up carefully — it was even heavier than it looked, and he wasn’t quite sure how he’d carry it all the way home with his scooter at the same time. He’d just have to eat it on the way. “Thanks,” Noah remembered to say, as he trotted out the door.

Noah felt like he had to unhinge his jaw like a snake to get his mouth around a bite, but eventually he was able. The juice, cool and sweet, ran down his chin and over his fingers. He ate another bite, then another, as he walked back toward the corner, pulling his scooter alongside. A scene flashed before his vision, like an extremely vivid dream, except Noah was awake. It appeared and then vanished so quickly that he hardly had time to process what he had seen. There was a quick dash of red, a screech of car tires, and a crash. Noah stood for a moment, blinking. The street was empty. So what had he seen? Probably best not to tell anyone about it, he figured. Otherwise they’d probably hook wires up to his brain and do a lot of tests, or something. He turned the corner onto Third Street, where a few of the other neighborhood kids were playing. Jacob had a red shirt on. Noah’s face paled, but it was already too late. The car skidded around the corner, striking Jacob with a sickening crunch of bone and glass. Noah saw him disappear beneath the car’s body. He forgot the apple and his scooter, running over to see if the other kid was okay, but the driver was telling him to stay back. Some of the other kids were already calling 911 on their phones.

He knew he should have stayed, to be a witness, but Noah fled across the lawns toward his house. He was sure that he was going to throw up. Another flash filled his vision, and he stumbled and fell into a neighbor’s rock garden. Thick black smoke poured into the air, as flames licked the side of a house. His house. As soon as it had appeared, the vision was gone again, but the sound of approaching sirens split the air.

[Story] Story a Week 27

[[ Yay I have wireless at the motel! Got in way later than I expected and had to type this on my clunky old laptop, but it’s done! ]]

Kamara slept fitfully through the morning, waking only to try to sleep again, but the stranger’s words would not leave her mind. Might he have heard word of Tamazi, far to the south? It was unlikely, but the last scent that Kamara found had been at the southern edge of the clan’s territory. She had no time for his fanciful tales of magic and wonder, but he may have seen something more useful. Kamara got to her feet and went to seek him out.

She found him with all of the other males, lounging beneath the broad shade of the tree near the lake. They were groggy with sleep, drunk on the sun and heat. The children sprawled at their sides and between their paws, some of them snoring lightly. A few males lifted their heads to watch her approach curiously — it was unusual enough to a huntress abroad in the middle of the day, to say nothing of seeking out the males at rest. Kamara knew that they had their feuds and alliances just as the hunters did; those claimed by the same tended to become very close. As did a daughter gain her mother’s standing in the clan, so too did a hunter’s chosen males — Nadira’s enjoyed the warm flat rock that overlooked the surrounding plains. The new stranger was yet unclaimed, and had no friends among his brothers yet. Kamara found him at the very edge of the shade, only his head and forepaws beneath it; his tail and hindquarters bore the full brunt of the midday sun. He watched expectantly as she approached.

“Good day, huntress,” he said, rising to greet her. The tuft of his tail twitched to and fro, betraying his interest. He thought that Kamara had come to speak to him — which she had, but not for the reason he expected. “You honor me with your presence. My name is Mardak. Would you care to hear a tale?”

Kamara’s eyes narrowed, appraising him. She did wish to speak, but not where the others might hear. She knew they thought of her search as foolish and fruitless, she had let them believe she had given it up, but she had not. She never would. Let them believe she wanted to claim this male instead. “Very well,” Kamara said. “But let us walk by the river, it is cooler there and we may speak privately.”

Mardak leapt to his feet eagerly, trotting through the long grass behind Kamara. “What sort of tale do you desire, huntress? I know many.” He had all the clumsy eagerness of a young male, but he was clearly old enough to have been claimed before. Had he been dismissed? Kamara’s clan marked males who had been disgraced so, but perhaps those in the south did not. “I have many other fine qualities as well,” Mardak continued. “I trained with the great Nizaar, do you know of him? His name is well known where I am from.”

“Mmm,” said Kamara, not listening at all. They had gone far enough away from the others. The water ran cool and clear beside them. “Tell me of the huntress, the one who did all of those things.”

“– and I have lovely– oh,” said Mardak. “You mean the one who has just appeared?”

Kamara nodded. “What is her name? What does she look like? Where is she from?”

Mardak looked pleased that she had taken such interest in his story. “I cannot tell you her name. No one knows it. They are all afraid to speak to her, lest she call lightning from the sky to strike them.” His golden eyes widened. “That really happened. I saw it myself. Well, I saw the place where the ground was scorched black from the lightning. The huntresses of the Black Feather clan saw it, though, and they told me.”

Kamara sighed. Such stories would not get her anywhere closer to finding Tamazi. Perhaps her feeling was wrong, after all. “She is a pale gold, the color of late summer grass beneath the Huntress’s Eye. She had an old scar on her shoulder, and newer ones over her face and sides. They couldn’t see her well. As for where she came from–” Mardak took in a deep breath. “No one can agree. Some said she came down from the north, others say she flew from the sky and some, well… some say she was sent by the Huntress herself. For what reason, no one is sure.”

Kamara listened, frowning. “When was she last seen?”

“Oh,” Mardak said, turning his ears back in thought. “Not long ago. No more than one time since the Eye opened, I would say.”

Could it be Tamazi? It was possible, it had to be. Kamara held tightly to the hope that her daughter might be alive. But it could also be someone else, or worse, simply a fanciful story. At her age, she should know better than to believe every tale spun by a male eager to impress a huntress.

“Well,” said Kamara, rising to her feet again. “Thank you for telling me.”

Mardak blinked. “Wait,” he said. “You’re leaving? You didn’t like the story?”

She shook her head. “It’s fine, just — not what I had hoped for.”

The stranger rose too, standing very near to Kamara. It was a brazen move, one that very well might have earned a rebuff from another huntress. But Kamara was too occupied with her grief to notice. “Then what had you hoped for?” he asked.

She had no reason to trust him, but Kamara let the words come out anyway. She had held them in for far too long. “I had hoped it might be my daughter,” she told him. “She has been missing now for a very long time. I think she went south.”

Mardak nodded, his jaw set in determination. “If I found her,” he asked, “Would you claim me?”

Kamara stared at him in astonishment. They must do things very differently in the south. Or maybe his boldness was what had caused him to be dismissed. “I will consider it,” she said at last. She did not want to make any promises she could not keep. But she would do anything possible to find Tamazi, or at least to learn what had become of her.