Skilled young Chelaki hunter Ina hides a secret that would lead to her execution if discovered – she has the Curse, a form of magic allegedly granted by the dark god Siut. When she learns that her female lover’s daughter also has it, she must decide whether to reveal her secret and save the child.
Vycenian prostitute-turned-priestess Fay uncovers a secret in the heart of her temple that will plunge her into a conflict she wants no part of. Choice, however, is a luxury she does not have.
Meanwhile, the town of Eleusian illusionist and soulbinder Alexios is besieged by Ilk, monsters not seen since the cataclysm that ended the Ilk War 200 years earlier. But in attempting to seek help from his people’s old allies, the Vycenian Weaver mages, he discovers that the enemy is everywhere.
Through the glossy green, crescent leaves of the koua tree in which she was perched, Ina spied the black snout of a nouk snuffling low to the ground. Long, curving white tusks thrust out proudly on either side, promising certain death if she mistimed her jump. Next in view were the small, pebble eyes and the domed head with its black crest, and then the round body, thick with muscle and fat. A shiver of excitement ran through her. What a fine kill for the feast tonight.
Her eyes went to another large koua tree on the opposite side of the trail, seeking Oyu. His red-brown skin closely matched the colour of the bark, making him almost invisible. But she could tell he’d seen the nouk and was ready and waiting. She pointed at herself with two fingers, then at the nouk, to signal she would initiate the attack, and he made a circle of his thumb and forefinger to show he’d understood.
Then, although she shouldn’t, she opened her mind to Chel’s Cloth, the intricately woven Threads that knitted the world together, and was flooded by the sounds and sensations of the forest. As always, the influx almost overwhelmed her, and she struggled to master herself and narrow her focus to the nouk. Her heightened senses told her its next move and her best path of attack, and she raised her long-bladed spear above her shoulder, tensing for the strike. Above her, a honeybird trilled a call and was answered from further away. The nouk paused, pressing its snout lower to the ground, then took another step forward.
She leapt to the ground next to the nouk and thrust her spear through the thick hide into the flesh just above the shoulder. At the same time, she raised the barriers around her mind – but too slowly to block out the animal’s terror and pain. She cried out as it loosed a piercing shriek and bunched up its short hind legs to leap forwards and away. But its life was already rushing out of it, and its knees continued to fold until it sank back into a half sitting position before toppling over. It kicked and twitched for a moment, then stilled.
Ina withdrew the spear, and a jet of hot heart’s blood spurted out, splashing her legs and soaking into the nouk’s stiff grey bristles. She fixed on the nouk’s glassy black eye, still reeling from the shock of sharing its death. I shouldn’t have given into temptation, this is how I’m punished. Struggling to hide her emotion, she knelt beside the nouk to murmur a quick prayer. ‘Chel, we thank you for the flesh you have given us. Please take the soul of this creature to live in peace with you.’
Oyu dropped down out of his tree and hunkered down beside her. ‘A good kill, Hunt Leader.’
There was a teasing twist to his pronunciation of her new title, and she punched him lightly in the arm. At the same time, though, she did her usual mental check – had she been too fast, too accurate? Could he guess her secret? She resisted a fresh temptation to open herself to the Cloth and use her powers to delve into his emotions. That was too wrong. Instead, she looked at his bright green eyes and broad smile. There was no suspicion or jealousy in them, just warm admiration. ‘Let’s fix it up quickly. I want to get back to the village.’
‘Suni’Ish was due back this afternoon, wasn’t she?’ Oyu said, his tone even more playful.
‘I want to hear what news she has of my father,’ Ina replied, which was true, but only a little.
Oyu was smirking, and Ina couldn’t help but smile herself. She indulged in a moment of fantasy, imagining Suni’s expression when they met, then shook herself free and began to search for a fallen branch to carry the dead nouk back to the village.
‘This will do,’ Oyu said, and she turned to see that he had already found a good stout branch. Before long they’d tied the creature’s legs to its length and hoisted it onto their shoulders to begin the short walk back to the village.
The animal was large and weighed on her, despite the strength she had gained through years of hunting. She hated being a woman at times like this, when she was reminded of the lesser strength Chel had inexplicably given them. Other times she was glad. Men smelt strange and they had too much hair. A vivid memory of Suni’s soft skin pressed itself onto her mind and urged her on. The moon had gone through a full cycle since they’d last seen each other, and each day had dragged on longer than the one before. Then she remembered that Muak would be there, and her joy dimmed, but only a little. Suni might still love her bondmate, but she wanted Ina in a way she didn’t him. And it wasn’t as if he’d stand in their way. He understood.
The walking became easier when they reached the main trail back to the village. Ina could smell it long before she saw it. Most powerful was the scent of the wood smoke that fired their earth ovens, interlaced with the aroma of roasting fish and baked breadfruit. Her stomach stirred hungrily. It was almost midday.
They rounded a dense clump of ferns and the village came into sight, the circular wooden buildings with their grass roofs blending seamlessly into the forest. Some dwellings were built around the trees themselves, with covered platforms constructed on the lower branches in homage to their ancestors, who had made their homes high in the great avenia trees on Chelakan, their lost home. As she often did, Ina tried to picture what those homes would have looked like, with the eirili, the magnificent red birds that had carried her people across the skies, nesting side by side.
They veered left towards the butcher’s tent, which was little more than four poles with heavy anan cloth stretched over them to keep out the sun. Han was sitting on a log stool, marking the intakes. ‘That’s a fine animal,’ he said, getting to his feet and looking it over appraisingly.
‘Ina’Yar’Su brought it down alone.’
‘I knew you’d make a fine Hunt Leader,’ Han said to Ina, his smile taking up his entire face. It was a smile that made many a heart sing, but the song was always sung to deaf ears, as Han had eyes only for his bondmate, Ria.
Ina forced herself to remain grave. ‘Thank Chel for the blessing.’
Han made a mark on his stone tablet with a charcoal stick. ‘It will do well for the feast of the Return. Some new healer apprentices have also come with Suni’Ish for training.’
‘So they’re back?’ Ina said, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice.
‘They’re with the Elders now.’
‘Are you free to practise for the Games later?’ Oyu said. ‘Ina and I have no more duties today.’
‘Of course. We can’t break with tradition and let ourselves lose this year, can we?’
‘I have no plans to,’ Oyu said with a grin. We’ll be there at mark four.’
‘I’ll tell Ria.’
They picked up the nouk to bring it to the back of the tent. Two butchers were chopping an earlier kill, large knives rising and falling rhythmically to cleave meat and bone, and the air prickled with the smell of blood and flesh. They left the nouk on the skinning table, then Ina said her goodbyes to Oyu and hurried to the Elders’ House. It was a round building like the rest, marking out the very centre of the village. Long miala creepers spilled down the sides from the roof, their white, bell-like flowers luminescent in the morning sunshine. The door shutter was still down, and Ria was standing guard next to it. Her black hair had been freshly cut around her ears, and Ina instinctively ran a hand through her own dark crop, which was getting too long.
‘Chel be with you, Ina,’ Ria said.
‘And you. Are the returned inside?’
‘Yes. They’ve been there for a mark. I expect they’ll be finished soon.’
Just then, the woven door shutter rolled upwards, and Ina found herself face to face with a graceful woman whose eyes were the colour of honey. They were eyes she knew well, eyes into which she had gazed for a long time in the shade of the trees. As they lit on Ina, they widened with surprise, then crinkled briefly in pleasure before regaining a poised serenity. With somewhat less serenity, Ina stepped away from the doorway and allowed Suni to exit, closely followed by two unfamiliar boys aged around ten. The apprentice healers Suni had brought from the other island, no doubt.
At that moment, the head healer appeared, his headdress of green and white feathers thrusting up from his shining, bald head. Suni greeted him and introduced the two apprentices. They exchanged some words about Suni’s journey, then the healer told his new charges to follow him away.
As soon as they’d left, Suni’s hands went to Ina’s, gentle and warm. ‘How have you been?’
Ina kissed her on the mouth, briefly, wishing it could be longer. ‘I’ve missed you.’
Suni smiled. ‘And I you.’
When she smiled like that, Ina felt as if her soul became visible for a moment. It was hard not to reach out with her mind and seek a deeper connection. It must have been so pure and wonderful in the old days.
Ina stepped away from Suni, whose face had brightened with a more intense joy.
‘My little berry! Come here.’ She stooped and opened her arms to her daughter, Tani, who ran into them screaming with joy, dark tresses flailing behind her.
Muak was close behind, his tall frame blocking the sun. Although Ina was as tall as some men, he stood two hands higher, and she had to crane her head up to greet him.
But he gave her only the briefest of nods before addressing Suni and Tani. ‘Come now. We’ve prepared a surprise for you.’ The words were said lightly, but there was something forced to his smile, and Ina noticed that his right hand was balled into a fist by his side.
‘How exciting!’ Suni exclaimed to her daughter, who giggled in delight. Suni hugged her again then straightened up, her eyes flickering with concern towards Muak.
‘Come on, Mami!’ Tani took Suni’s hand to lead her forwards. Muak turned towards their hut and started to walk even before his bondmate and daughter reached him.
‘See you tonight,’ Suni said.
Ina watched as the family disappeared among the huts. Seven years it would be, before Tani was of age and Suni was free of her bond to Muak – as long as they had no more children, of course. She vowed to herself again that she would not take a mate. She would not lie with men to spawn children, tradition or not. Her place was among the trees, not the women’s circles, and they wouldn’t take it from her.
Rise, rise, into the sky
Sing your song and awake the dawn
Cross the rivers and the great wide sea
Pass over the hills and the whispering trees
Oh eirilin, rise, rise,
Sing your song, awake the dawn
Oh eirilin, rise,
Rise, eirilin, rise
As the voices sang, the flute trilled and swooped, weaving in its melody to recreate the flight of the eirili. But the sounds washed meaninglessly around Ina as she watched Suni through the fire, an ache in the pit of her stomach. She was sitting with Muak and Tani, her slim legs visible beneath the hem of a dress that was the colour of koua leaves in high summer. A long necklace of red and brown seeds hung between the swell of her breasts. Ina closed her eyes and imagined running her fingertips over her bared flesh.
When she opened them again, she saw Suni’s smiling face and the gleaming firelight in her eyes. The longing grew in her, carried and intensified by the drums, which pounded out the ecstatic culmination of the birds’ flight. Too late, she remembered to add her own steady beat on the bass. Suni met her eyes, but quickly looked back to Tani and then up at Muak, who was sitting still and silent, seemingly looking at nothing at all. If I were him, I’d be happy. I’d have her in my arms, like Han has Ria now, and Tani would be ours.
‘Ina, are you alright?’ Oyu said when the song ended. ‘I don’t think you’ve kept time once tonight.’
‘I’m bored of these songs.’ She unslung the large drum from her shoulders and rested it on the ground.
‘It’s her, isn’t it?’ Oyu squinted through the fire at Suni.
Ina said nothing, silenced by her jealousy and the shame of it. To desire another for oneself alone was wrong, to claim another’s mate for oneself utterly forbidden. But Ina didn’t want to share Suni, not with Muak, not with anyone.
‘Forget her for now. You’ll have your time together.’ He slung an arm around her and squeezed her shoulder.
Ina sighed, allowing herself to be pulled against his warm bulk.
‘Smoke?’ The offer came from Han, who was holding out a long, intricately carved koua–wood pipe that gave off a sharply pungent smell of arrowleaf.
Without releasing Ina, Oyu took the pipe and put it to his mouth. The red in the bowl blazed more brightly as he inhaled.
‘Can I have some?’ Ina said on impulse.
‘Really, are you sure? It’s not like you.’ Smoke streamed out of Oyu’s mouth as he spoke.
‘Just a little, why not?’ Although she knew very well why not and could hear her mother’s voice warning her against it as clearly as if she were standing next to her. It wasn’t something she could share with Oyu, though, or anyone else, not even Suni, whom she loved more than her own self. But she was suddenly fed up of control, fed up of having to watch herself day and night. She wanted to experience the dreamy pleasure that was already causing Oyu’s pupils to expand and his face to grow slack.
‘One puff only,’ he said, passing her the pipe. ‘You’re not used to it.’
She filled her lungs with the pungent smoke. It scratched her throat and caused her to cough. Oyu gave her some water, and as she drank, her mind began to stretch out to the stars, light, airy and free. She was about to inhale some more, but Oyu took the pipe from her.
Closing her eyes, she let herself enjoy the light breeze as it caressed her face, glancing first across her left cheek and temple to cool the humid heat of the night. It would be nice to swim now, yes, that’s what I should do, she loves swimming too.
‘We’ll win the relay this year,’ Oyu said, his voice close to her ear. ‘You were so fast earlier.’
He repeated his words and they drifted to her one by one. She snatched at them and strung them together, and when she grasped their meaning, her lips curved into a half smile. ‘We were all fast.’ Her voice was barely a whisper, floating on the breeze.
Her eyes opened to glowing embers hovering in the air above her, sending up thin streams of grey smoke. She took the pipe, enjoying the feeling of the warm wood between her fingers as she inhaled again. Then she looked for Suni and saw her through a fog, her features blurring with the flames of the fire. The pipe was taken from her hands. If only I could sit with her. Why is Muak so stern tonight? She seems worried now.
Someone said something to Ina, and she turned her head in the direction of the voice. ‘What did you say?’ Her own voice seemed to come from very far away, as if it didn’t belong to her.
There was an answer, but it was lost in the haze. The fire seemed to have grown, to fill all her vision. Old Tsu had started a tale and the fire dancers had sprung up around the flames. She broke free of Oyu and lay on her back. The stars were dancing across the sky, shooting out bright tails as they swirled to the music. She closed her eyes. Everything will be fine.
‘Ina?’ Oyu, leaning over her, but now the different parts of his face were melting into one another, eyes into nose, ears into cheeks, mouth into chin.
She opened her mouth to speak but a fainting nausea swept over her, making her feel as if she were standing over a great cavern.
‘Ina, are you well?’
A rush of noise and chatter, the boundaries of her mind porous, like a skin.
Howls and screeches echoed in her ears and bounced off the sides of her skull. She tried to pull herself in, to build a dam against the clamouring cacophony, but she might as well have tried to stop the sea.
‘Someone give me water!’
Wave after wave of sound and feeling crashed into her, buffeting her consciousness here and there with snatches and fragments of half formed thoughts and intentions. Ani’s over kreeeek kreeeek must do better next how do what the fire dancers wuff wuff wuff he’s so ouuuuuuuuu annoying should have crik crik now wrong with Ina kreeeeek wuff wuff wuff.
The threads of Chel’s Cloth filled her vision and the world exploded with dazzling light. Wheezing for breath, she tried to claw free, but was drawn in ever deeper, until her entire being fragmented and dissolved.
Oyu said something again, but she couldn’t understand him. Shards of brilliance danced across her vision, sharp and cutting. She half-struggled to her feet, fell again, put her hands to her ears, but it was no use because the noise wasn’t coming from outside.
A skin pressed to her mouth, water trickling across her tongue and down her chin. She choked and coughed. More water, and this time she swallowed. Then hands under her armpits, pulling her upright. They were taking her away, into the darkness of the forest. She stumbled, but they held her tightly between them.
As they drew away from the fire, the babble began to lessen, and the pieces of her started to come back together. The threads of the Cloth, though, were still blinding. Who was there? Oyu on one side, and she could read him clearly. He desires me. No, he loves me. The realisation was like a spear through the gut. She wanted to break free, but Ria was holding on too. Her feelings were equally plain – worry, surprise.
They stopped and she vaguely made out the open doorway to the Hunters’ Lodge through the shining threads. They brought her to the room she shared with three other hunters and sat her down on her pallet.
‘What happened?’ Oyu asked.
She tried to answer, but her words were a mumble.
‘Too much smoke,’ said Ria. ‘The best she can do is sleep it off.’
Ina lay down and closed her eyes.
Someone took her boots off and pulled a blanket over her.
‘Rest, Ina,’ Oyu said softly.
A form of sleep came upon her, but the noise followed her there, allowing her no real rest, yet no escape into wakefulness either. And Muak stalked the pathways of her dreams, looking hard and angry, while Suni, following him, was afraid. But Ina knew not why.
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