by Faith Luna
There are shadows within shadows where life and death play in the night. She lunged, her obsidian blade more moonlight than substance. He seemed to float back, up onto a fallen tree, balanced like a cat or a forest spirit. The hood of his cloak fell back, pooling around his shoulders, leaving summer moonlight painting the color of blood over hair drawn back from his face.
The same moonlight painted her ghostly pale as she looked up at him. Dark circles under her eyes, the bright red of a still seeping gash on her cheek made her paler still, though she did not lower her blade. "Name," she demanded.
Still on the fallen tree, light and fae, he bowed, arms reaching out to the sides, though his right arm came forward, catching the merciless moonlight over the jagged brands of his Speaker's mark. Demon red hair framed his face, soft full drapes of impossibly long hair, hair the gods would slay any other than a Speaker for wearing. His amethyst eyes watched her with a strength that was neither predator nor prey, but something utterly beyond either. "I am Jewls the Lucky of the House of Fire, Guilty of Contempt," he said, bowing without losing eye contract with her. The silver at his collar the interlocking circles of Speaker oath, truth, beauty, freedom spoke of wealth and power the ken could never know. In a voice sweeter than any god should have, he asked, "Tell me, Honorable Soul, why are you dying in the forest?"
She dropped her blade. It tumbled from her weakening hand to shatter against a random stone that cared no more for her than it did for the tree roots pushing its other side. Her face slackened, dark eyes searching him, wanting some proof of dreaming or rescue. Finding neither, she swallowed. Tears stung down her cheek, over the trying to scab wound. "I am Kite, youngest daughter of Mag, lover to Silver. It was me that set the cael to summon you."
"I come for no summons, only to see to the bondmate of a friend," he said, without bias neither kindness nor resentment. He held out his hand to her though, even though too much space separated them for her to take his hand. Light warmed his palm so that it seemed almost transparent like falling water. The light glowed brighter, filling the space between them with tiny dots of living sun. "Tell me a true story, Honorable Soul."
Nahgahra's mother's mother's mother's mother had been a Speaker. She had walked the endless paths of the world, Speaker of Dead, the Voice of the Gods, the Bringer of Truth. It is said that her eyes were black like midnight because sparkling distractions of the world were swallowed whole by the unshakeable truth of her soul. Her hair, the longest most powerful braid in the world was said to have stretched from one village marker to the far marker and that was how her children had known to measure the safe place of the ken. That same hair had held all the darkness and stars, given to her by her lover Kirth, the God of Night. She had been Sopha the Night of the House of Water, Savior of Master Speaker.
Between the open maker to the far marker, between high rise and the edge of light, thirty homes now covered the land. Rounds of wattle and daub, thatch joyfully seeded with spring flowers, colorful murals circled the houses in the ken, telling stories of ancestors and of as yet unborn descendants, stories of the Gods that the Gods would probably never have admitted to such as the one with a man with a long red braid and a phallus that stretched half way around the open marker side. He was the only red head ever drawn. He was Johara the Forever of the House of Fire, First Speaker and the Master of Tricks.
At the very center of the ken sat a larger round than the others. The murals painted around it's walls were older, touched up every year by descendants, never painted over. They showed the great Night, the Speaker who brought life to the ken. Each new heir painted another panel for themselves, most often showing them communing with the Night, so it was perfectly obvious who could speak to the Night and who could protect the ken, as long as it stayed within the markers. A woodhenge of beautifully sculpted totems encircled the main house, heightening it's sacristy. Inside the woodhenge, the round and a great fire pit created the sacred shape of the infinite. The stone pit had been carved, by the powerful truths spoken by Night, so the center rose up in a powerful pillar and spread into a pot, a storm sky gray pot on the outside, polished down to a beautiful white smooth sheen on the inside.
Nahgahra's hand gripped the side of the pot, powerful fingers, knuckles almost white even against the golden tan. "I know," he said, dark eyes searching over and even into the hearts of the people standing within the woodhenge.
Men and women surrounded the pit, the heir of Night. Some stood close together, bound together by the binds of hearts. Others kept to themselves. All wore either leather or homespun trousers that stopped about mid-calf, embroidered with colorful images, some just flowers or stars, some intricate scenes similar to those on the rounds. The younger folks tended to either wear no top at all or a cloth twisted around to hold breasts up and separate, tying off around the neck. Everyone's hair was cut short, spiked with mud or sap into shapes and even echoes of the stories they wore on their clothes. Tattoos and henna art covered them, made each unique, set stripes in hair, animal patterns over lean bodies. Only the headman's hair reached to his ears, darker than anyone else's and proving his right to be heir of Night.
His voice cut through the lulling sweet chatter coming from beyond the edge of light. "I know one of you took the cael! Who dared enter my space?"
An older woman stepped forward, her breasts flat and free, her skin covered with tattooed feathers that reached right up her throat. "And so? Nahgahra if you can't know your own space then you have nothing to say. The cael belongs to all of us. Any can summon if they feel the need."
Young enough to be her daughter's child, Nahgahra knew better than face Crow directly, but he ran his fingers through long dark bangs, flipping them back, daring the gods to dispute his words. "Does anyone dispute that I carry the purest blood of Night, the Greatest Speaker?"
He ran his fingers along the rim of the great pot as he spoke, circling it slowly, without looking Crow directly in the eyes. "As you say, wise Crow, anyone can summon a Speaker. If someone with good intent wished to do that though, why would they not speak to all of us here? Why go behind the back of the ken to summon? Are we not a strong and safe tribe? Does not the blood of Night run in our veins? Why do we need an outside Speaker?"
"You are no Speaker," Kite said. She didn't step forward, but the rest of the ken took a subtle step away from her. Arms at her side, chin lifted, she wore black leather trousers and a matching vest edged in silver threads, very fine silver bells along the lower edge that tingled, brushing against her bare waist. "I took the cael. I hung it in the moon tree. A Speaker will come. We will know my sister's path and we will know the truth of your blood."
"You doubt me," Nahgahra growled, fists doubled up. "How dare you doubt me!"
"It is my right! I am a soul of the ken! I have every right you have!"
"You have nothing," Nahgahra screamed. "I am the Speaker of the ken! No other Speaker will come here. I forbid them!" From previously empty hand he let the thick silver chain of the cael fall, the precious carved gem dangling and glittering in the firelight. "I own the cael! It is mine and it summons me! My ancestors spoke for Night as do I!"
The cael hung from his hand, casting sacred rainbows over the community space. Towering over the rest of them, he glared demanding obeisance. A breeze brushed across them, tangling through his longer dark hair. The birds hushed in the night. Clouds moved over the moon, leaving the torches beyond Nahgahra the strongest light in the ken, the rainbows sliding over shadows even more potent.
One by one the people of the ken dropped to their knees, strengthening the feral grin on Nahgahra's face. Then only he and Kite still stood, his smile turned completely predator. "You accuse me," he stated, giving her no way to deny or back away from what her refusal to acknowledge him had brought her to.
"I do. I know that you did not leave the ken all day. You cannot have gone to the moon tree to get the cael. I was not followed. You have a second cael." The people around her hissed, wordlessly acknowledging the challenge. She stared at him, her own hands doubled into fists.
He spun the cael around, the silver chain whistling as it picked up speed. "How dare you!" The heavy carved jewel slashed out, scratching across her face, knocking her head to the side.
Blood ran down her cheek, but she turned back to face him, unmoved. "A real Speaker will come and tell my sister's path."
"Her path belonged in my furs," Nahgahra spat. "She refused her path and left the ken. The Gods condemned her. You will take her place, but not as my mate, as my mita, serving not only me, but spreading your legs to any in the ken."
Kite spit on the hard packed ground, getting bloody spittle on Nahgahra's sandaled foot. "Never. I will prove that you are a liar and we will boil your bones. Then I will smash the pot your ancestor created because her truth no longer runs strong in her line."
The hiss acknowledging her challenge grew to a muted moaning and people crept back out of the light of the woodhenge without rising, as if just fading away could blend truth into nightmare.
He took a step towards her, victory hungry on his face.
She backed, one foot farther back, a long obsidian blade in her right hand. "You're not the only one who can pull something out of the air, Nahgahra. I will go to the moon tree and when I return with the real cael, you will be as nothing! Nothing!" Her back to the darkness where she knew the rest of the ken waited, she stared at the man who would rise above the rest of them. "Keep him here. If his blood runs with Truth than he can not fear the truth. If he lies, then he will hunt me and lies win. I call for witnesses to stay with Nahgahra!"
Crow stepped back out of the darkness, standing up right again. Sihrah, a young boy not old enough to bear yet came in from the other side of the woodhenge. Another man, pale moonlight hair and almost pink eyes stepped up behind Kite, stepping close enough to her that their bond had to be closer than that of kinmates.
"I do not call witnesses," Nahgahra said with a smirk. "She can prove nothing and I would not put anyone at risk when the Gods strike down vengeance on her for her blaspheme."
"A challenge is not blaspheme," Crow pointed out.
"If you leave their sight or leave the henge, we will know you for a liar," Kite declared.
"I will go with you," Silver said, laying a hand familiarly on Kite's shoulder.
With his support, more people stepped back into the light filling the henge, strangling, confused.
Kite reached up to touch his cheek, smooth and beardless even though he was two winters her senior. "No. You are the best potter in the ken. I do not fear the gods," she said, giving Nahgahra a sneer, "but I will be faster on my own. I want his bones boiled by morning!"
"Mita," Nahgahra said in a sing-songy voice, "I'll still let you service Silver. I bet everyone in the ken wants to taste what he's had."
"Kite will never be mita to anyone, not while I live."
"Fine," Nahgahra said sweetly, "Then it's your life for her challenge. She'll have boiled bones by morning, one way or the other."
Most of the people had filtered back into the edges of light then. Nara, the woman who most frequently shared Nahgahra's furs, crossed her arms defensively, her dark brown hair too curly to ever really be long. "This is idiot's play. Kite, you are too proud. Bow to Nahgahra. He has the cael that you stole from him. Acknowledge his blood and he will forgive you."
"I will never bow before a liar!"
"You'll give Silver's life and blood over for your pride? Let's not kill anyone! Just acknowledge the gods and go on about our lives. Don't let this get out of control!"
"I need to know what happened to my sister," Kite whispered, letting Silver take her hand. "My sister is not dead!"
"Yes," Nahgahra said, "She is."
"How do you know that? How do you know," Kite screamed, holding tight to Silver's hand. "Did you kill my sister because she rejected you."
"No," he said.
The truth in that statement took Kite back for a moment. "Did you kill my sister?"
"I don't have to kill fools. The gods do that for me," Nahgahra purred. He held out his hand to Nara, who snuggled up next to him. "Go. Prove that I'm a liar if you can. I won't kill Silver. I'll make him my mita instead of you and you'll never touch him again."
Silver touched his fingers to her mouth before she could shout back at the heir of Night. "I trust you, Kite. I love you. Go. Prove us right. I will keep witness on him. He won't go anywhere."
The moon tree was the first place she'd ever kissed Silver, where they'd pledged, the place she'd said goodbye to her sister before she'd gone to the Great Rite with the pottery from the year before. Her path had never been clearer to her. Clouds moved away from the moon and she ran. Her heart raced.
Her cheek throbbed. Barely half way to the tree, she fell, hard, bonelessly, as if the gods struck all the strength from her. Dirt and gravel tore at the cut on her cheek and her scream strangled out against wet ground.
"Bless me Niss, give me your strength, let me honor you with my devotion," she whispered the prayer to her patron god, the god of strength. It took all her will to push herself to her hands and knees. "Body and soul, or just soul, I am going to make it to the moon tree!"
"You think so?" Marn spat as he stomped his foot down in the middle of her back, forcing her back down to the ground. "Just lay there and let the poison kill you. It'll look worse for me if I have to bruise you and I got to think that'll hurt more for you."
"Fool!" She growled, resting for the moment. "You're in it with Nahgahra! Where's my sister?"
"That Silver. His work is very popular these days. Just like Nahgahra said. Your sister took her own path. She left you and the ken."
"Liar!" She screamed, her voice betraying her so that she only squeaked.
A foot still in the middle of her back, he leaned over and gloated. "You know what's most powerful in all the world, mita?"
"I am not mita!"
"You would be if you weren't about to be dead. The whole ken will be. That's what's most powerful in all the world. Coin. With coin you can get anything."
"No!" Adrenaline screamed through her where her voice had failed. Maybe it was surprise or the strength of the gods, but she pushed up and knocked him from his balance. Blade out, she slashed with all her strength. Blood sprayed and she ran, both from what he'd said, what she'd done, what she feared... all that mattered was proving Nahgahra a liar and saving her lover.
The forest did not forgive her her violence though and running turned to walking with a goal of one tree to the next.
"Hello, Kite," her sister said. Hair much longer than it ever had been or should have been without offending the gods, "You're looking very pale."
She could see right through the smokey gray form of her sister. "Not as pale as you. I knew you were dead."
"The more you move, the sooner you'll join me."
"Whose baby are you carrying? I'm not carrying."
"You are, but this baby is my baby. I met a man, Kite, a tall man with blue eyes and he'd sing to me. I've never been so happy."
Kite leaned against a tree, wishing she had the energy to cry. "So it's his baby? Who killed you?"
"Only a Speaker can ask me that," she said, "Well, the baby, yes, it's the Speaker's. When I held his hand, I could see the spirits of the passed. As soon as I am spoken for, I will walk with him."
"Is that supposed to make me happier?"
"It's not about you, Kite. I'd really like it if you didn't die, right away though."
"I guess that's not about you though," Kite complained. Out of the corner of her eye, shadow took on the form of a person and she lunged, her knife cutting only air and pride.
The shadow glided back out of the way as if she were no more frightening than an angry kitten.
His beautiful words, more sung than spoken echoed in her mind, "Tell me a true story, Honorable Soul."
Without sound, he walked past the far marker of the ken. The folk were all up, two bonfires lit, waiting the verdict of the challenge. There were those that supported one way and others that supported the other way, but all danced together, argued over how to cook rabbit. There would be death by morning, but it won't be an accident. It would be the verdict of the gods and restore order to the ken. It might have been the beer that Nahgahra shared that night that gave a stranger such easy access.
Barely taller than most adolescents, pale as moonlight with demon red hair and pale twilight eyes, the folk may just have thought that spirits walked among them. Laughing, he chatted with each round, each group between them, commenting on pottery and weather, murals, and Johara the Forever, of course. As he moved farther into the ken, leaving those behind him to see the long well wrapped braid swaying cross his hips as he walked, sending whispers and speculation a head of him.
By the time he reached the woodhenge, conversation had simmered down to frightened chatterings.
Nahgahra had found a great wooden chair, larger than he was by far, but now covered in feather pillows and expensive drapes of cloth. He sat in it, one leg over a great limb of an arm, Nara sitting on the ground in front of him, wearing only a swath of sheer green fabric and an anklet of golden bells. A pretty youth stood next to the throne like chair, holding a great bull horn full of beer and wearing nothing at all.
Jewls stopped just to the side of the fire pit, touched the tip of one slender finger to his chin and stared.
Nahghara roared. He grabbed the horn from the ghost pale youth, drank it down and threw it back. On his feet then, wearing only black leather pants, his skin a beautiful sheen of expensive perfumed oil, he pointed at Jewls. "What's wrong with you idiots? You let some red headed demon walk right up to your Speaker?"
Fear is a disease and it travels faster than any other.
"I didn't realize you were a Speaker," Jewls said sharply. "You have a very short braid, don't you? Was your sin lying or ill treatment of lovers?"
"I'm going to kill you," Nahghara growled.
"You're a child of Night," Jewls asked as he unfastened the cuff of his sheer black right sleeve. As he pulled the lace free, firelight made the Speaker's brand on his arm reflect as brightly as if moonlight lived in his very flesh. "I'd bet on a child of Luck over a fifth removed child of Night."
Nahgahra straightened pinched off his nose for a moment, then snorted. "Dog. You can't be a Speaker. Speakers don't carry demon blood."
"Have you not heard the Song of Forever? But it is illustrated so beautifully," Jewls said, motioning back towards the round that bore Johara's image. "It is one of the first songs a Speaker learns."
"You were not summoned, demon! We have no need of you."
Jewls leaned to one side, a finger resting on his upper lip, violet eyes staring at the stars. "Well," he started, pivoting a little, stepping back with one foot, "if I was a demon or if the people of the ken had no need of me, that might be effective."
"He's secured in the Speaker's house," someone shouted from the folk. "Nahghara is going to make him mita at dawn."
"When no speaker has judged him guilty of a crime?" Jewls carefully rolled up his sleeve, making sure everyone could see his mark. Slowly, deliberately he turned all the way around, so that everyone could see the length of his braid, where it coiled between his hips and shoulders. "If he were not guilty of a crime, that would be rape, which would be a crime against the gods."
"If the criminal Kite does not return to meet her challenge by dawn, he is a criminal. I say it is so! I am the known Speaker of the ken."
Standing tall, elegant, the firelight flickering shadows across the taunt lines of his stomach, Jewls wrapped his braid around his sacred right arm and bowed. "Allow me to present myself properly. I am Jewls the Lucky of the House of Fire, Guilty of Contempt." As he unwrapped his braid, dozens of tiny glittering leaves started to catch the firelight as well. Each one represented a first place finish in a Great Rite, offering a testament to the favor he'd been shown from the gods. No one spoke as he held out an accusing hand at Nahgahra. "I knew Sohpa the Night of the House of Water, Friend of Forever, Dragon Slayer. She was old and wise when my braid had not even five folds. You look like her. Because of that, I give you the chance to offer me hospitality." Jewls held his left hand out an offer of formal recognition.
Nahghara spit between them. "I'll have nothing to do with you, blood hawk."
"That's good," Jewls said with a smile. "I won't want to share this house with you anyway." He made a dismissive notion with his left hand, batting it up and down. "I don't think you bathe."
"Are you going to let him talk to me like this," Nahgahra growled at the folk who once again were fading back out of the henge.
"Leave them be," Jewls advised. "What have they to do with matters between Speakers?" Jewls scratches his ear, but there was something hard in his eyes, his words, that drove Nara away from the throne like chair, towards the shadows lingering outside the henge. "Surely you must be able to tell me what brought me here, Nahgahara?"
"How should I know what brings a demon? I know how to solve a demon though!" From beside the chair he grabbed a great stone and birch axe, older, but probably more effective at smashing soft things like skulls than a bronze axe could be.
Jewls jumped back when Nahgahra swung. Heart beating as slowly as he could force it to go, he landed with nimble grace on the edge of the black stone pot. Walking backwards, one foot carefully reaching behind him, Jewls held out his arms, "Was it because of the pot she brought back with her, Nahgahrara?"
"What are you talking about demon? How could a man jump like that? Balance like that? Even a Speaker can't do that!"
"Oh I've always been nimble. It's a gift," Jewls said, batting at the air with his hand again, "If we all survive into tomorrow, remind me to tell you all about Shahaylen! Now that was a good story!"
Nahgahara stalked him around the pot, muscles tensing. A missed swing could ruin the pot, his biggest claim to being the head man of the village, which was his strongest claim to being a Speaker. "Get off my family's pot, you demon!"
Jewls didn't slow his pace at all though, not even looking as he walked backwards around the smooth rim. "You know it's a custom with Speakers to give a very fine pot to those they love. Did you know that?"
"The Night made this pot for the village!" Nahgahara growled.
"Sohpha polished this pot every year when she came to this ken, every winter that she spent with her mate, who was also called Nahgahara, by the way, thought that Nahgahara had a better voice and much nicer breasts."
"I don't have breasts! Get down here you damn demon!"
Jewls' finger pressed against his lower lip, pulling it down into a pout before he said, "Oh, but I think you'll hit me if I do. And then the gods would have to condemn the whole ken. That would make the Rain very sad. You see, Rain is also on his way here. He's expecting to find his mate and the big brass pot that he sent with her to the village."
"There is no brass pot! We don't need one! We have my pot!" Nahgahara's knuckles went white around the handle of his axe. "I'm going to kill you!"
"Like you killed Kite and her sister?"
"Yes! No! I didn't kill anyone!"
Jewls held up his hand and a second cael dropped down, glittering damningly under the light from his palm. "The second one, the one in your pocket, it's poisoned on the edges, isn't it?"
"You killed Kite," Crow growled, stepping forward. "There are going to be bones boiled by morning."
A scream came from the Speaker's House, a long wailing, "No. Kite!"
Jewls, braid still wrapped around his arm ceremonially, held up his other hand. The glowing moved into a new shape, the symbol for shame. "We will boil no bones." He held his hand out, aiming at Nahgahara's forehead and sang, perfect pitch, a wailing dirge of a song.
Trembles, then outright shaking rolled over Nahgahara, seizing him with a power that could only be of the gods. He screamed, but his scream touched no one. The folk, both in and out of the henge all dropped to their knees, hands in front of them in the symbol of the three fold rule, truth, beauty, freedom.
Nahgahara was also on his knees, the symbol of shame glowing permanently from his forehead. He sobbed, reaching out to the balancing red headed Speaker.
"Those that lie, that commit violence with their lies, who seek to steal with their lies, these people will walk always at the edge of life, believing their own lies, yet never being truly seen by any other." Jewls jumped down from the pot, looked right into Nahgahara's eyes and smiled. He yanked the hammer from the stunned man's hands held it up for all to see that he'd pulled it out of nothing, then threw it against the fire pit, shattering it. "We commit no violence. So says the Speaker of the Gods."
By then some of the folk had freed Silver. The man threw himself at Jewls' feet. Jewls sank down next to him, wrapped an arm around his shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Silver's expression changed and he was on his feet, taking the same path towards the moon tree that Kite had left on earlier. "She is under the tree and well."