It rained on the day Mother would join the gods. Raian stood, arms tight around himself, and looked like a boy shivering in the cold, when he felt like burning.
Beside him, his older brother rubbed his nose, but Raian couldn’t tell if he was crying. Suppressing it, maybe, just like their father. Raian sniffled, bit his lip, and tried to stand straighter, too.
The gods called down a sharp wind from the mountains, a wind that buffeted the pines and the fires and the corners of the stark white linen wrapped around Mother’s form. It stole the funeral rites from the mouth of the elder, who gave Mother her last prayer.
Father sighed, his breath shaking as he exhaled.
Raian wanted to reach up and take his hand, but Father held a blazing torch in one and his youngest son in the other. Next Raian looked around the heavy gathering, so much of the villagers come to see off General Kentan’s beloved Tya.
“It’s time,” Father said, his voice like gravel. “Taro, hold Anani’s hand.” He squatted between them and lowered the toddler from his strong right arm. Father gave Taro’s shoulder a squeeze and kissed Anani’s cheek. They looked just like him, brown hair and eyes dark as spring soil.
Raian tugged at his own hair, too dark for a proper Ashtian, but not the vivid black of his grandmother’s people. Mother would say his eyes were like the clash of a storm cloud and a clear sky. Even his skin tone was somewhere in the middle. It was as if the gods leeched the colors from him, just enough to set him apart.
A hand grazed Raian’s head, and he didn’t notice it was his father until the man had stepped away, approached the damp pyre.
Father dropped to one knee and held his torch to the dry kindling at the base. His flame was finicky against the weather, and the fire wouldn’t catch.
While someone went to fetch more oil, Raian stepped forward.
Heaving his shoulders back and swearing under his breath, Father withdrew the torch. He rose to standing and glared at the gray heavens as Raian came up from behind.
You need to get to the other side, Mum. Holding back his anger and his grief, Raian knelt before the pyre. Elemental magic had a nasty habit of drawing on emotions.
Made it fickle, made it dangerous.
Just like he’d practiced many times under her watchful eyes and encouraging words, he coaxed to life the spark inside him. I’ll help you.
He let the magic gather in his core.
Like any fire, she would tell him, let it grow too big too fast, you lose control.
Energy prickled down the veins of his arms to his fingertips as he reached for the kindling with both hands. Heat flowed from him, another layer under his skin waiting to be set free. He envisioned the fire, imagined the kindling soaking in his flames.
A hand snatched his wrist, yanked him away from the wood. The magic that had been so close to the surface fell back to his core, left him cold.
Raian looked up at his father, breathing hard.
“Never again,” Father muttered.
“I just, I wanted to give her my fire, to help.” Raian tried to pull free, but Father gripped his wrist harder, until it hurt.
Deep creases folded on his father’s brow, his mouth forming a tight line. Anger accompanied the red veins in his eyes, searching Raian as if he would find the reason his beloved was dead. “Never again,” he said, his voice laced with heavy warning but never rising.
Raian’s lips trembled, but the pain inside was stronger than his wrist, where his tan skin turned white around his father’s fingers. He tried to hold it back, but one big sob broke the dam for the rest to flow.
“Was just trying to help,” he said through his teeth.
Father dropped him, and Raian’s vision blurred as they came eye to eye. He let Father cup his face, listened as he said, “I know. Promise me, Raian. Never touch it again.”
“But I… Mum and I always—”
“No excuses.” Father wiped a tear from Raian’s face. He might as well have tried to stop the rain. “It’s not safe anymore. I wish I’d realized…. Just promise me.”
“Promise,” Raian choked out. As soon as his father’s grip loosened, he pulled away.
Three hunters parted the crowd, their faces smudged with earth and their clothes stained with travel. “General.”
“Did you track it down?” Father asked.
“Lost the trail up by the alpine ridge,” one said, shaking his head solemnly. “The other hunting party is sweeping the area. We’ll head back out as soon as we resupply, but it’s more than likely the beast is long gone.”
Raian stomped away, returning to his spot beside his brothers. When he reached the puddle growing where his footprints had been, he kept walking, past the man returning with a pail of oil. It had been his and Mother’s pastime, training his magic. As he got better, things started to happen. A hunting accident. A bad harvest. A stillborn child.
For magic wasn’t supposed to exist anymore.
Raian was six the first time he heard someone whisper about it, about him. But mother said, That was not your fault. These kinds of things happened long before you were born. She had magic, too, but it wasn’t living energy like Raian’s fire. Tya was a visioner, and Raian tried not to think about whether or not she’d foreseen her own death, then he broke into a run.
He fled his grandmother’s shouts and the small column of smoke rising from the pyre now. The energy inside tried to cling to his runaway emotions. It burned like a fever, clawing its way to the surface again.
He pressed his palms to his head, then swung his arms down, two arcs of fire leaving white lines in his vision.
Tears blinded him, and he tripped and sprawled into a stream of water cutting across the path. He didn’t get to his feet, gulping breaths taking over and the heat leeching his strength, so he crawled into the closest garden. The beans and squash were overgrown and had been devoured by bugs, and Raian didn’t care that he trampled them. He squeezed into a near-empty firewood storage beside the lodge and let his anger run dry. Pressing his fists to his forehead, he closed his eyes, and smothered everything.
Raian dragged his hands down, peeking through his fingers at the bare feet standing on the single step to the lodge. He recognized her as she squatted at the edge of the step.
People called her Tail, because she twisted her hair into a long braid every day, and used to get terribly angry when they said her born name.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Raian hastily wiped his face dry.
She stood up, alert golden eyes sweeping the dirt paths among the clusters of lodges. Her clothes looked too small, her belly showing and her pants tight, like they had no intent on lasting the rest of summer. “Oh,” she said. “I can smell it. They got the fire going good now. Gross.”
Raian shot her a glare as he hurried to pinch his nose. “That’s my mother.”
“At least you had a mother for a while,” she replied.
She leaned one brown shoulder against the doorframe. “It’s my lodge, and you went and tromped all over my garden.”
He risked a glance out at the broken and smashed vegetation. “So? Already looked like ass.”
“So?” Tail twisted her lips, eyes flicking to the side.
Raian let his hand fall slowly from his nose. Maybe he was lucky because he was tucked into the firewood, or because of the rain, but the stench of burning oil and flesh didn’t reach him. When he looked at Tail again, she’d retreated halfway back into her lodge, just peeking around the doorframe.
“We can be friends, if you want,” she said.
“Huh?” In all his eight summers, Raian’s life rarely intersected with hers, even in the small village of New Ashta. He grew up learning from books, and teachers, and his mother. She grew up learning how to survive for herself, and by stubbornness or the will of the gods, she succeeded. Older than him by a mere three moons, Tail didn’t make friends. “Why?”
She picked at a split piece of wood on the outer wall and shrugged. “Tya was nice to me, so I figure I’d offer.”
Pulling his knees into his chest, Raian turned away from her.
“Want to help check my rabbit snares?” she asked. “I have a few up by the shrine. No one will find you there, if you’re still aimin’ on hiding from people.”
When Raian looked at her again, Tail had moved from her doorway to the space in front of the firewood storage, dragging her toes in a small circle in the mud. She smiled, a sad kind of smile that revealed, for a moment, that she might be as lonely as he was.
A quick nod and a quiet “I guess,” and Raian crawled out covered in woodchips and dirt.
With bare feet, the two children made their way through the village, staying under the cover of roof gables until they reached the pines by the north path. The rain dampened the forest floor, so they trekked silently by ferns, over shallow tree roots, and around wildflowers.
“C’mon, Raian, pick up your feet!”
Tail was far ahead of him, her braid swinging as she spun around. The ground sloped up toward the base of the cliffs, and some ways off, he could hear the waterfall. Tail waited for him on a small rise, her back to the tall trunk of a fir tree, where a rabbit struggled in a snare at her feet.
While he caught his breath, she grabbed it by the hind legs and broke its neck. Out of the four snares they checked, three were successful. Raian was grateful for the distraction.
“Thank you, Ashta, for sending me these fine conies,” Tail said, the three rabbits dangling from her hands. “Well, firefly, want to roast them up now?”
He glanced around. They’d be hard-pressed to find dry kindling to start up a fire. “Oh,” he realized when he saw her grin, then shuffled his feet as heat filled his face. It wouldn’t take much. Some twigs and fallen branches. Just enough energy to dry the wood, so his fire could catch. “I promised I wouldn’t use it anymore.”
Tail’s lips quirked to one side as she tied the rabbits to a used snare and slung it over her shoulder. “Oh, why?”
“My father thinks it’s bringing about bad things, because no one’s supposed to have magic anymore.” Raian shook his head and turned away. “I was really good at it though.”
“What are you gonna do then, if you can’t practice? Your mum’s gone now. Can’t hide in books all the time… or in my firewood shed.”
“I know.” He’d learned some things about hunting, more about gathering. When you like mushrooms, it’s best to know which ones won’t kill you.
Tail brushed past him, headed back toward the village. “Anyway, lucky thing you didn’t wreck my herb garden, or I’d been really pissed. C’mon. Rabbits for roasting.”
He almost slipped downhill on the pine needles, but he followed her. What was he going to do? He could keep up with his studies, of course, but never practicing his magic again, that left him with a big block of empty time. He’d replace it with something useful. “I gonna learn how to hunt bears. You know where to start?”
“I’m only eight!” she cried, stopping in her tracks. “Hunt rodents, no problem. Foxes, sure. But bears? You need a big-ass bow for that.” She held her free hand up high as she could reach.
Raian stepped past her, taking the downward slope at an angle. “I’ll learn to make one, and I’ll learn to hunt. We’ll be bear slayers.”
“If you want.” He glanced over his shoulder.
Tail grinned, shrugged, and they returned to the village together.
Continue: CHAPTER TWO