Leaning down until her gray, matted braids brushed the earthen floor, the Teller peered into the wide eyes of the children gathered round her bare feet.
“Surely, you have heard of Miti Toto,” she scoffed, in a voice like stalagmites with teeth to match.
As one, the children shook their black-haired heads.
The Teller pulled her eyebrows upwards in an exaggerated display of surprise. “And you call yourselves groveborn,” she scolded, shaking her head.
“Come closer then, and let me tell. She roams the forest,” crooned the Teller in a low and creaking voice, “surviving on live toads and poison mushrooms. She has skin like mud and pond scum, eyes blacker than tar. Her yellow teeth can tear the skin off a young one’s bones.”
At this, one of the littlest screamed, and the Teller burst into rasping laughter, shooing the screaming children away with sweeping waves of her long arms.
“Begone, young ones, and quick! Before Miti Toto catches you!”
Punctuating her last words, the Teller grabbed a slower little boy, four or five winters old, and bared her crooked teeth as if to bite. Instead, she tickled him until he squealed with giggles and broke free. “Run quick!” she laughed, waving him away.
The children left warm silence in their wake. It settled comfortably along the deerskin walls of the tent and transformed the Teller back into Maegrove, the eldest and best-liked Grove Mother out of all the local Groves. Maegrove settled back against her chair and picked up her well-worn and beloved pipe. “Ah, my dear one,” she sighed, eyeing the smooth contours of the pipe with pleasure, “how you comfort me in my old age.” She brought it to her lips.
A small, foreign cough stayed Maegrove’s hand.
“Eh?” Maegrove peered over her pipe to see a child standing back pressed against one of the tent posts, hands clasped firmly at their front.
Maegrove frowned, drew a deep inhale of her pipe, and beckoned towards the shy, silent creature. “Come closer child, let me see you.”
Obedient in the way of all grovechildren, yet perhaps with a slight delay that belied some hint of independence, the child came slowly into the light, stopping with head bowed a few feet from Maegrove’s chair. Same black hair as any grovechild, though perhaps slightly curlier than usual, same brown woven tunic. This one, though, had something blue and metallic pinned to their collar—Maegrove could not quite make out its shape. She clicked her tongue, impatient, and hooked a finger to lift the child’s chin.
“Ah,” rasped Maegrove, eyes raking over the lowered gaze, the mouth that turned crooked under scrutiny, the brows that kissed in the middle. She remembered, now, the meaning of the metal pin. “You, I know. The Woodswoman’s daughter. Elka’s girl.”
The girl winced with the tiniest flinch of her shoulders, but she nodded. “Yes, Aunty.”
“And what are you called, grovechild?”
“Mm.” Maegrove scratched her jaw, leaning back to take another draw of her pipe, relishing the warm burn in her chest. “Tekkagrove. Not a usual name.”
The girl’s head lowered even further, and her voice was quiet as she spoke. “N-no, Aunty. Tekka-plain.”
Maegrove cursed, spat onto the ground, recited the old protective saying. “May their bones break and their tents burn,” she muttered, not bothering to hide the scowl on her face. But she saw the child shaking and her heart softened. Peering at Tekka out of one eye, Maegrove scratched her chin again. “Ah, child, don’t look so sad. We all have names.”
“Not my name,” bit Tekka, with sudden fire that surprised Maegrove into laughter.
“Ay, not your name. But though they are your kin,” sighed Maegrove, “you are not responsible for the plainspeople or their doings.” She squinted. “A Mother’s burden must be honored.”
Tekka sighed. “Yes, Aunty.”
Maegrove settled back against her chair, examining Tekka with lidded eyes and renewed interest. Most parents of grove-born plainschildren kept them away from true grovechildren, keenly aware of the mostly true stories about the plainspeople’s past evils. Though Maegrove had seen it happen before, she had not considered that a Mother of the Grove might choose to birth a plainschild, regardless of the struggles their children would most likely endure amongst elders and peers. Then again, Elka was wood-born, and had lived in the Grove only these past ten winters.
“So your father was a plainsman, then. Elka must have cared much for him.”
“I don’t know, Aunty.”
Maegrove’s bushy eyebrows jumped to touch her thinning hairline. “Elka did not tell you on your nameday?”
This time Tekka did not answer, and Maegrove filled the silence with another draw of her pipe. “Nevermind that, girl. Now, what is it you want?”
Brief as flame moved by wind, Tekka’s gaze burned across Maegrove, who had to force from her mind the images of smoking tents she saw in the young girl’s brown eyes. They seemed to gleam with unnatural light—Maegrove shuddered, reminded herself it was only the reflection from the fire pit.
“Aunty,” said Tekka, gaze lowered once more, “will Miti—Miti—”
“Will Miti Toto really eat you?”
Maegrove blinked at the suspicion in Tekka’s voice, then narrowed her eyes. “It’s only a story, child.”
Tekka dug her big toe into the dirt. “Yes, Aunty . . . but—”
“Did something scare you? Has a wolf strayed near the Grove?”
Tekka shook her head too quickly. “No, Aunty. I was only wondering . . .” her eyes landed on Maegrove’s, and her voice swung to a lighter, smoother pitch. “I wanted to know why Miti Toto eats toads. Mother says toads are sick food.”
Maegrove studied Tekka’s now coyish upturned face, her steady gaze. She set her pipe down, shook her head in wonder. “You ask why Miti Toto eats toads. You do not ask why Miti Toto eats children.”
Tekka’s chin remained lifted. “It’s only a story, Aunty.”
This time, Maegrove was startled to something darker than laughter. Something concealed in Tekka’s tone sent an uneasy crawl of ants up her spine. “Run and play, child,” she grunted, trying to grumble away the sensation, “and give an old woman her rest.”
Tekka bowed respectfully and left the tent, tucking her chin against her shoulder like a perfect grovechild. She walked with long, decisive strides that looked strange on one hardly a summer past their nameday.
Maegrove would have never guessed Tekka’s heritage without knowing her name. Maybe the flame, the slight catch of gold round the dark center of her eyes, would have hinted, but Maegrove doubted that she would have twice considered it given all the other concerns a Grove Mother must deal with.
Usually, after a grove-born plainschild’s nameday, his or her Mother would send them to live with their father in the plains. Theoretically, it was a good way to keep peace between the plains and grove peoples. But sometimes, the fathers were dead, or rejected their groveborn children, and Mothers of the Grove had no choice but to find a way to live with their plainschildren among the Grove people.
Maegrove had no time to ponder such matters. Arae, Maegrove’s eldest daughter, was supposed to assist Maegrove in the nameday and harvest ceremonies, the judgements, rituals, and countless other responsibilities, so that she might eventually take Maegrove’s place as the first Grove Mother. However, Maegrove’s sharp-tongued daughter was proving to have little natural talent in intermediation. A few nights ago, one disturbed Mother had complained to Maegrove that Arae had insulted the curve of her child’s nose. Maegrove shook her head, sighing at the thought of the only other choice—her third-oldest, Raka, who loved rolling in other daughters’ beds far more than any wisdom Maegrove could impart.
Maegrove scoffed. Neragrove and Ranagrove, the Grove Mothers who led nearby sister Groves, had no such trouble with their daughters.
The thought brought Maegrove back to the daughter that had just left her tent. Tekkaplain—a grove-born plainschild. Though rare, it did happen. One of Raka’s favorites, Tera, born a plainschild but rejected by her father, was now a treasured Mother of the Grove. Still, Maegrove had not interacted with a young plainschild in more winters than she could remember. She was more than unsettled that one had easily slipped undetected into her Grove and tent.
Days later, it was hot in the late summer afternoon, the air heavy and oppressive around the people of the Grove. The tall grass that surrounded the Grove barely moved, so dry it crisped under the feet of laughing, half-naked children. Mothers sat outside their tents, elbows resting on wide-spread knees, eating cool handfuls of juicy kraka as they waited for their men to return with freshly-caught and freshly-cooked meat. Some Mothers sat in groups of two or three, chatting loudly, shushing sons or daughters that complained of the heat, quieting a little one’s gentle cry. A daughter or two, not yet a Mother and so still subject to their orders, sauntered up and down the central path through the Grove’s tents, stopping at one tent or another to ask a Mother for eggs or kraka or whatever else their own Mother had requested.
Maegrove moved past these girls, aware, but unheeding. As the girls stopped and bowed their heads whenever Maegrove came near, a few pairs of eyes tracked Maegrove’s gnarled staff, the hunger in their faces clear as the blazing sun in the sky. It made a growling laugh rise up in Maegrove’s chest. The girls were impatient to be Mothers, hungry for the status Maegrove’s staff could bestow. They know not the cost, thought Maegrove.
She would speak now with one who did. Maegrove stopped in front of a tent smaller than the others, with a narrow strip of blue cloth hung in front of its entrance, limp in the dead wind.
The end of the cloth brushed the shoulder of the tent’s squatting Mother, resting against her collarbone like the friendly squirrel-cat Maegrove kept as a pet. The Mother hummed a wordless tune to herself as she worked with her hands at something between her knees, feet flushed bare against the earth.
Maegrove squinted at the top of the Mother’s head; brown hair instead of black, short and tightly coiled instead of long and flat. She cleared her throat.
The Mother looked up. The blue clasp at her neck, the mark of a Woodswoman, caught the light as she shaded her eyes. “Ah, Grove Mother!” she exclaimed, quickly lowering her gaze, “How does the day go?”
“Well it goes, Elkawood, well it goes,” muttered Maegrove, eyeing the clasp.
Elka sat quietly under Maegrove’s gaze, waiting to speak until the permissive click of Maegrove’s tongue. “It is good to see you, Grove Mother. What brings you?” She looked over her shoulder, checking something inside her tent. “I’ve given away the last of my extra,” said Elka, turning back to Maegrove, “but I’ll grind and brew more tomorrow, if you’d like to share a drink with me?”
The fistful of fire at Elka’s feet distracted Maegrove. In place of an answer, she asked, slowly, “What do you make?”
“Ah . . .” Elka breathed, glancing upwards with a shy, sideways glance. She pulled her work onto her lap, rubbed her thumb over the beads before holding it up. It was a necklace, strung with the black seeds of the kraka fruit—except they had been washed clean and rubbed till they shone as bright as the dark eyes of the Grove people. In the middle of the beads hung a flat disc of sandeye, flame trapped inside stone. It was the dark red of clay, struck through with swirls the colors of autumn leaves.
Maegrove shook her head and squatted down, laying her staff in the dust at her feet. “Wood and Grove people alike know where to find riverrock,” she said, nodding towards Elka’s clasp with one squinted eye, “but you can’t find sandeye near the Grove.”
“Oh.” Elka sat back on her heels, fingers lifting to rest on the stone clasp that rested against the meeting point of her collarbones. “Yes. Tekka is a plainschild. I thought you would have guessed, Grove Mother,” she tried to tease, something like pride lifting the corners of her mouth.
Maegrove stared at Elka and clenched her fingers around her staff. “I would not have known. She has your face, and the ways of a grovechild.”
“Yes,” said Elka quietly, “but her father’s eyes.”
Maegrove grunted. She narrowed her eyes, and Elka lowered her gaze as if remembering her manners.
“Grove Mother,” said Elka, “I know I wronged the Grove by holding her nameday in private, but—” she hesitated, hands curling before laying flat against her lap. “I worried . . . ”
“And rightly so,” agreed Maegrove, grip loosening on her staff. So the Woodswoman was not entirely clueless, self-centered, and prideful. Maegrove was grateful she could wave away the dreary thought of an Unmothering ceremony. “The girl does not wear the sandeye,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
Elka’s face darkened. “I had hoped she would. It will . . . take some time, I think.”
“Where is the girl?”
Elka shrugged. “She’s taken to the river lately. I encourage her to play with the other children, but—she’s probably there, swimming, finding riverrock, I don’t know.”
Maegrove nodded, beginning to grow bored. She looked past Elka’s shoulder, caught sight of a hanging tapestry depicting a woven tangle of brown, blue and green—branches, probably a parting token from Elka’s birth tribe—and suddenly remembered.
“She’s a curious one,” said Maegrove, wondering what tie still tethered her to Elka’s tent, to Elka’s daughter. Wondering why she could not tear her gaze from the necklace in Elka’s hands. Old age seemed to be making her shamefully sentimental—or, worse, curious, for no reason Maegrove could guess.
“Came to the telling last night, stayed to—” Maegrove gave a gritty bark of laughter, “stayed to ask me whether Miti Toto truly makes meals of little ones. Heh.”
Elka tilted her head, frowning. “Miti Toto?”
Maegrove studied Elka with lowered brows, reconsidering the Unmothering ceremony. “Woodswoman truly, are you not? I see I must forgive Tekka her ignorance.”
Elka laughed, a deep and melodious sound, teeth flashing large and gleaming. “I had thought Noro would teach her, but—”
Maegrove grunted, longing for the taste of her pipe. “What do fathers know?” she said, at the same time as Elka. They chuckled together.
“No, truly Noro is good to us,” said Elka, rocking forward, back onto her toes, “a good man.” She bent back to the necklace, lifting it to examine how the sunlight struck it full of flame.
At the sight of it, Maegrove again had to shove away visions of burning tents and remembered screams, the horror of tall black figures on the horizon, bows strung with fire. She blinked to clear her head, frowned at Elka. “Not the clasp,” she said, unable to keep the heaviness from her voice, “but this, you think the girl will wear?”
Elka shrugged, smile falling. “It’s flashier, yes. But I hope, in time—”
“You hope for much,” grumbled Maegrove, suddenly angry. She stood, though her legs protested her effort, and leaned against her staff, clutching it tightly to her heart. Smoke was on the wind, in her nostrils, her chest ached from it.
“Grove Mother?” asked Elka, starting to rise to her feet, “Are you alright? If I have done something to—”
“Bah,” spat Maegrove, waving Elka to sit and turning to hide the trembling of her hands, “Maybe she will. Maybe she will. May the day go well, Elkawood.” She began to shuffle away, longing for the comfort of her pipe.
“ . . . May the day go well,” echoed Elka, confused, frowning at Maegrove’s back. “Do you—”
A curse brewed on Maegrove’s lips as, inexplicably, the strange, invisible tie jerked taught, freezing her mid-step. She frowned hard. Earlier, she had misspoke. Tekka had not asked Maegrove if Miti Toto ate children, but toads. Toads lived not in the river, but in the trees, deep in the forest. Maegrove craned her neck, tried to peer west, over the infinite stretch of forest that ran from the Grove’s western edge to the end of the world. Try as Maegrove did, she could not banish the rising anxiety in her chest.
Her gaze snapped over her shoulder to pierce Elka’s. “Where is Tekka, Woodswoman?”
As if burned, Elka dropped her gaze. “I-I will find her, Grove Mother.”
Maegrove narrowed her eyes. “A Mother’s burden—”
“Is no burden, Grove Mother,” answered Elka softly, instead of properly finishing the saying.
Maegrove’s shoulders fell, and her eyes landed heavy on Elka’s bowed head. “Yes,” she sighed, tired, gripping her staff. “Well. May the day go well.”
Maegrove’s walk back to her tent felt longer than it should have, and, stepping through the opening, she welcomed the shade with an intensity that startled her. Muttering, holding back the phantom cough her addled lungs had generated, Maegrove trudged quickly to her pipe, where it lay on a low table engraved in elaborate, sacred symbols. Too desperate to waste time lighting the fire pit, Maegrove fumbled along the table’s singular shelf, knowing by touch which clay jar she needed. It was pushed far to the back, dust gathered on its lid.
Hands shaking, Maegrove tipped the tiny jar over, dumped its rare powder into her pipe. After it, she pushed in the customary crushed smokeweed, and only then did she light a flame. She set her pipe to it, staring into the flame’s white-hot center, and breathed in deep.
As she inhaled smoke, the smoke in her mind’s eye cleared. Her lungs loosened. With a rushing sigh that sounded more sob than breath, Maegrove sank to the ground, eyes falling shut.
Tekka trudged through the thick undergrowth, hefting her basket higher. “Stay,” she commanded, struggling to keep the contents of her basket from escaping. “We’re almost—” she grunted, tugging her tunic free of a grasping bush, “—there.”
Though it was cooler under the trees for which the Grove took its name, sweat still beaded along Tekka’s brown forehead, dripped to catch in her wild brows. She had left the Grove early that morning, confident that her Mother would not look for her unless more than a day passed before she returned. After all, the last time it had been this hot, Elka had permitted Tekka to undertake a three-day journey to visit Elka’s birth tribe—the Wood—all on her own. Elka had followed Tekka seven days afterwards, but Tekka remembered well how Elka had sauntered into the Wood, leisurely pace betraying her unconcerned attitude.
Tekka didn’t mind. For ten winters, she had watched from afar as the children of grove-born parents submitted themselves in order to show their Mothers respect, all the while spitting rude curses under their breaths. Though raised—thanks largely to Noro’s influence, and Elka’s assimilation into the Grove—in the customary ways of a grovechild, Tekka had not escaped the cultural influence of her Mother’s people. Tekka firmly believed and took pride in the consequential understanding that she and her Mother shared. Tekka must follow the ways of the Grove, but as the woodspeople taught, and as the blue stone on her tunic represented, Tekka must always remember that she and Elka were more than Mother and offspring—they were blood and blood, heart and heart.
Until her nameday, Tekka had never questioned that truth.
Tekka paused to catch her breath, resting the basket on top of her head in the hopes that the height would discourage its residents from attempting to escape. Through a nearly undetectable slit at her hip, she reached into the singular pocket of her tunic and fingered the smooth, cool stone resting in darkness against her thigh. At her neck, next to the blue stone, was a small bunching of frayed thread, indicating the place from which Tekka had ripped the sandeye.
She had gone to the river nearly every morning since her nameday, staring into the murky waters, sandeye clenched in her fist. Though she longed desperately to be rid of it, she could never bring herself to throw the sandeye away. The rest of the Grove did not mark bloodlines with accessories as the plains and woodspeoples did, and only Elka would know the true meaning of the orange clasp, though some older Grove people might guess the truth. Still, Tekka could not wear it, could not bear the undeniable display of heritage, even if its connotation was far more subtle than the ending of her name.
Although it was clear now that Elka had acted in foresight of the Grove’s negative reaction when she held Elka’s nameday in a quiet spot deep in the woods, far from the highly trafficked paths used by travelers and hunters, she had not shared her apprehension with Tekka.
The winter past, on the chilly morning of Tekka’s nameday, Tekka had followed Elka into the trees in sullen silence, wondering why Elka would not allow Tekka a regular nameday, officiated by the Grove Mother and watched by excited grovechildren. But, draped in the shadows of the swaying trees, like birthmarks across her shoulders, Elka had explained nothing. Instead, she’d simply bent down and whispered Tekka’s name into her ear. Then she pinned the sandeye to Tekka’s collar and gave her an encouraging smile. Tekka had followed Elka home confused and angry.
The Grove people did not celebrate as often as the woodspeople, and Tekka’s summer trip had made her jealous of her cousins, who enjoyed gifts and festivities every time the season of their births rolled around, as a celebration of their lives. The woodspeople called such celebrations ringdays, after the way trees gain one new ring each winter, but grovechildren had only one nameday in their life, in which they were formally initiated into the Grove, given their full name, and welcomed by its people. Tekka had resented Elka for stripping Tekka of belonging, but she could have never imagined the full extent to which she did not belong.
Her Mother, of the Wood. Noro, not her father. Worst of all, Tekka’s true father was a plainsman. Never sure what to believe, Tekka had long overheard tales of the plainspeople and the violence they had committed against the Grove, a horror that had ended only two generations ago, but she had never once connected them with herself.
After her nameday, Tekka had run to join a group of grovechildren in play and share with them her new name. Expecting the usual laughing welcome, she’d faced stares, jeering shouts, raised fists instead.
How could Her Mother have loved a plainsman?
Tekka sighed. Deep down, that was not what bothered her the most. She may have been influenced by the ways of the woodspeople, but she was still grove-born. She knew that a Mother’s burden, a mother’s choice, must be honored.
In truth—a truth Tekka only glimpsed through cracks in her fingers as she covered her eyes—Tekka was confused. Elka had not even tried to send Tekka to the plains, had never once told Tekka stories of the time that Tekka now assumed Elka had spent there. Elka seemed to want Tekka to honor her heritage, but was nevertheless mysteriously close-lipped. She behaved as if the Plain, its people, and its stories were long-dead, hardly relevant to hers or Tekka’s life.
But Tekka heard the Grove people’s warning stories, the crude jokes, the way the elders had flinched when she obliged their well-meaning inquiries after her nameday, and told them her full name. The curse that had fallen from the Grove Mother’s lips before she could catch it. The fact that she had not even tried.
Tekka scowled, brought her hand out of her pocket, and moved on. Though Tekka was tall for her age by Grove standards, it was still hard for her to make her own path through the plants and undergrowth. But she was determined—she knew legends did not make their homes near people, and it was a legend she wanted to find.
The shadows were growing thick by the time Tekka stopped, exhausted, at a fallen log surrounded by a smooth patch of ground. She peered around the small clearing. There was a cluster of bright white mushrooms at one end, and the trees nearby were clothed in thick moss. It was quiet; the smooth, muffled silence of swimming underwater. To Tekka, it was perfect, secluded and mysterious. Just the right place for a legend to hide.
She squatted, and placed the basket at her feet. She had thrown one of Elka’s old, heavy winter tunics over the top, and it seemed to have successfully kept the basket’s residents inside. She pulled back the edge of the tunic, caught in mid-air a toad that tried to escape. “Don’t jump,” she warned, unconsciously imitating the commanding tone of Elka’s voice whenever she gave Tekka “suggestions,” and frowned at the cluster of croaking amphibians within the basket.
When the bewildered toads gave no other signs of rebellion, Tekka exhaled and leaned back against the log. She bit her lips to quell a rush of excitement, drew in a quick, eager breath.
Tekka’s eyes darted between the trees, as if she could glimpse Miti Toto hidden in the shadows if she only tried hard enough. “Miti Toto,” she sang, “I brought the food you like. I’ve got mushrooms, and, hey!—” she scrambled in the dirt to catch an escaped toad then sat back, pushing her hair behind her ears, “—toads.”
Heart beating fast, Tekka waited a few long moments. Silence met her ears, and Tekka’s face fell.
“I—I know they say you’re a monster,” she said quietly, tracing a line in the dirt, “but don’t worry.” Her voice became fierce. “I’m not afraid of you. They—” her head dropped. “They call me a monster too. Maybe . . . maybe we can be friends?”
A beetle crawled onto Tekka’s shoulder. She let it crawl down her arm, around her wrist, onto her palm, to the tips of her fingers. It had two bright spots of orange on its wings, orange like the sandeye in Tekka’s pocket. Tekka frowned, and fed it to the toads.
She sighed. A strange taste came on the air, carried by a hot wind that had not been there moments before. Tekka’s sigh became a cough that she struggled to stop. She wrinkled her nose and wiped at her eyes, sniffing the air in confusion.
A loud rustle broke the silence, and, coughing, Tekka scrambled to her feet, whirling around to face the sound. The rustle grew, was joined by the sounds of branches breaking and low shouted mumbles, like many incoherent voices joined together, as powerful and compelling as the drums to which the Grove danced on harvest nights.
“Miti Toto?” exclaimed Tekka, grinning as she began to run towards the sound, shoving branches out of the way and crushing plants under her bare, brown feet. The sandeye thumped lightly against her leg, bouncing in her pocket as she ran. “Miti Toto?”
Maegrove jerked in her sleep. She pulled her knees closer to her chest, settling her head more comfortably against the crook of her arm.
Grunting, Maegrove rolled onto her other side.
Maegrove’s eyes flew open. A woman stood in the center of Maegrove’s tent, among the flames of the central firepit, fire licking up her legs.
Maegrove blinked, and glanced out the wide-open flap of the tent’s opening. Beyond it, no dirt, no tents, no Grove. Only innumerable stars, so bright they hurt Maegrove’s eyes. Eyes wide, Maegrove looked back to the woman. The exact features of her face were as indiscernible as in Maegrove’s memories, but Maegrove knew her immediately. With darker skin and straighter hair than Maegrove, though cut of the same mold, she stood slightly taller than Maegrove, and two braids, black and shining as kraka seeds, hung to her knees. She held a younger version of Maegrove’s staff in her hand—instead of dark, gnarled, and full of notches, its wood was pale, gleaming as if newly-oiled, decorated only by a thin strip of brown cloth. The woman’s clothing was the brown woven tunic of the Grove people, only, as on Maegrove’s ceremonial tunic, kraka seeds, bleached white, decorated its hem.
The light of the stars outside shone equally in the woman’s eyes.
If Maegrove had been standing, she would have stumbled and fell. “M-Mother,” she gasped, pushing herself to sit upright before falling onto her face in prostration. “I welcome you.”
“Rise daughter,” said the woman. Though cool as ice, her voice was affectionate. “It has been long.”
Rubbing her face in an effort to collect herself, Maegrove nodded. “The powder is strong,” she rushed, “and hard to come by.”
The woman regarded Maegrove. “And yet, my daughter, you used it.”
Maegrove stilled. She lowered her hands to her lap. In the ethereal starlight that filled her tent, the tips of her fingers were stained red; residue of the powder made from the roots of tubers that grew only in a secret place deep in the forest. Maegrove, and her Mother, and her Mother’s Mother, and all the Grove Mothers before them prepared for their ascent to leadership with a summer-long journey to collect the ingredients needed to make this most essential powder. A powerful drug, it was used only on the most special of occasions.
Maegrove had used nearly half her supply.
“I was afraid,” she said, weakly.
“Of what, my daughter?”
Maegrove opened her mouth, then closed it. What had she feared? Surely not Elka—though the Woodswoman was prideful, it was a pride she had all rights to. Maegrove could not blame her for loving herself and her child. Then if not Elka . . . Maegrove snorted a laugh. It was not Miti Toto that she feared, and especially not toads. Maegrove shook her head.
The woman’s silence was clearly disapproving, but Maegrove was sincere. “I’m getting older,” she offered, frowning, tone lifting in a question, “I can feel the passage calling to me and—”
A blast of freezing wind made Maegrove scramble backwards, arm over her face in a futile attempt to escape the woman’s wrath.
“Do you forget so easily?” spoke the woman, making no effort to raise her voice, yet it shook the tent so that Maegrove covered her ears in pain. “You brush it so often from your mind that you cannot remember.”
The wind blew harder, and Maegrove’s eyes widened as the woman flew towards her.
“Look in my face. Look at the price of denial!”
Through no will of her own, Maegrove’s arms were forced against her sides. Teeth clenched, Maegrove stared into the face of the woman that loomed over her in sudden, horrible clarity. The woman’s face was melting, skin dripping down like hot wax, filling Maegrove’s nose with a scent that churned her stomach. All around Maegrove were the shrieking screams of men, women and children being burned alive; in her lungs was smoke; amid visions of fire, tall, naked figures danced, whooped and sang as they burned Maegrove’s home to the ground.
Maegrove wrenched her eyes shut and threw herself to the ground, unable to speak over the strength of her trembling.
A flush of wind, and the vision was gone. Maegrove felt a cool touch over her head, the soft edge of a winter’s breeze.
Weary, cheeks wet with tears, Maegrove braced her hands on her knees and sat upwards. “They will not come,” she croaked, more plea than declaration.
The woman’s star-filled eyes held no warmth within them. They had held life, once, before the plainspeople had burned it away a lifetime ago. Maegrove’s fingers curled into fists against her thighs. “Our men scout our borders daily. From the trees we see the plains for miles. For two winters, they have sighted no plainspeople, and before that those who came bore goods for trade. We are at peace. They will not come.”
“Oh, daughter,” said the woman, as softly piercing as the distant moon. “It is never when we think, or from where.”
Maegrove’s blood turned to ice. From deep within the forest had come flaming arrows. Her birth Grove had not known, Maegrove had not known until moons after her rescue and assimilation into a sister Grove, when hunters had found discarded bows strewn across the ground of a small clearing near the Grove of Maegrove’s birth. The plainspeople had surprised them only by trekking a journey of many days around the edge of the plains and into the far western reaches of the forest. From there, they had snuck close enough to Maegrove’s birth Grove to burn it down, undetected.
Maegrove gave a horrified, wordless cry. How could she fight off the strength of the powder? There was no time. Her body would lie in drugged stupor as it burned.
What had Maegrove done?
“Mother, I—the powder—”
Expressionless, the woman held Maegrove’s gaze. “You must listen to your fear.”
Mangrove’s throat tightened. “I can’t!”
The woman’s eyes were stars against the richest soil. For the briefest moment, the contours of her face took on unburned shape and form, and their familiarity felt to Maegrove like the warmth of a kiss.
“You can, daughter. Wake up.”
Maegrove’s eyes flew open to a world of chaos. Already, smoke filled the air, joined with screams of terror. Coughing, Maegrove grabbed her staff and stumbled out her tent, into a nightmare.
Already, a few tents engulfed in terrible flames. A Mother, screaming as she clutched ashes to her chest. Arrows, singing through the air to pin the Grove people to the ground.
“To the river!” yelled Maegrove as throngs of Mothers, children, and newly-returned men raced directionlessly across the Grove, consumed by fear.
Filled with the strength of all the Grove Mothers before her, Maegrove raised her staff and whacked those nearest to her, hacking out coughs all the while. “To the river!” she yelled again, pointing with her staff to the southern end of the Grove, where the ground began to slope downwards, “the river will save us!”
Like a herdsman guiding cattle in the midst of a deadly storm, Maegrove used her staff to drive her people forward. “To the river! Move!” she yelled again and again, until her voice was dust; but even then the command burst off her tongue. Feverishly, her whole body cried out: “Move!”
They were past the flames, ten of them, twenty, Maegrove could not stop to count, only continued yelling and pushing people forwards, grabbing up crying children as she ran. Then they were running down the slope, into the tall, dry grass, and Maegrove thanked Grove Mothers past for the stillness of the air. They reached the river, and Maegrove shoved her burdens—two young boys—into a nearby daughter’s arms, before turning to race back up the slope.
At the top, Maegrove bent over, grip shaking as she leaned against her staff and tried to dispel the smoke in her lungs. Though she could hardly see, Maegrove could think only that she had to get to safety as many people as possible. She could not let her people burn. Maegrove groaned, pressing her fist against her forehead. If she had only heeded her fear instead of shoving it down, smothering it in pipe smoke. She could have saved the Grove from this terror. Look at the price of denial!
“Grove Mother!” cried a man’s voice, jerking Maegrove back to the present. A father sprinted out of the flames towards her, face slick with sweat and creased in desperation. “Grove Mother, help me!”
Maegrove straightened, grip white on her staff as Noro fell at her feet.
“I cannot get her to come, Grove Mother,” he sobbed, cheeks streaked with ash, eyes red from smoke. “Please, make her come, make her come.”
He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, shoulders shaking with sobs, and Maegrove pressed a trembling hand onto the top of his head. “I will,” she said firmly, over the dread uncurling in her gut. “To the river, Noro,” she commanded, pulling him to his feet and pushing him behind her, “I will bring Elka.”
Maegrove watched until Noro’s head disappeared beyond the slope. Heart thudding erratically against her ribs, Maegrove gritted her teeth, swallowed her dread, and plunged back into the smoke.
Through the thick haze, it seemed that most had followed Maegrove’s example and ran to the river. Glancing through the entryways of the tents still standing, Maegrove found only shadows. But Elka was here, somewhere. As Maegrove forced her way between columns of crackling flame, daughters ran past clutching chickens to their chest, fathers stopped to turn Maegrove towards the river but left her when she held up her hand. Tears streamed from Maegrove’s eyes, and the breath wheezed in her lungs, but she pushed herself forward until she reached a tent unburned, its blue flag streaming against the fire’s hot, unnatural wind.
“Elka!” Maegrove tried to bellow, unable to hear herself over the relentless flames, dread like a stone in the pit of her stomach. “Elka!”
Maegrove furrowed her brows in a prayer. Grove Mothers, please.
For a split second, the fire’s roar lessened, and Maegrove caught wind of the tiniest cry, a moan so despairing that it broke her heart. She breathed a wordless prayer of thanks skywards and ducked into the tent’s shadows.
It was another world, untouched by smoke or the noise of the flames. In the silence, Maegrove sensed her Mother’s hand, and pressed her lips to the strip of cloth tied round her staff in awed gratitude.
The moaning sound came again, and Maegrove laid her staff on the earth. “Elka?”
Concealed by shadows, Elka lay against the far wall of the tent, curled up beneath the heavy woven tapestry that Maegrove had noticed what seemed a lifetime ago. Maegrove went and kneeled by the Woodswoman, but Elka twisted from her, drawing further into herself, pulling the tapestry closer to her chest.
“Elka, child,” said Maegrove softly, in the tone she used for skittish little ones, resting a hand on Elka’s shoulder. “Your man needs you. Come, join us by the river. We are all there. We are safe there. Come.”
No Mother could disobey their Grove Mother when she spoke to them with such authoritative sincerity. Elka turned towards Maegrove’s voice unresisting, let Maegrove pull her upwards.
At the sight of Elka’s face, Maegrove dropped her hands as if burned. “By the Mothers, child!”
Under dead, gray eyes, Elka’s cheeks were red with long lines of blood. Maegrove grabbed Elka’s hands, found blood caked underneath her nails. Elka met Maegrove’s horror with listless, red-rimmed eyes.
“Where is she, Grove Mother?” whispered Elka, voice raw. “She was not by the river, nor with the grovechildren. N-none of the Mothers have seen her.” Elka grasped Maegrove’s wrists with icy fingers. “Where is she?”
Maegrove stared at Elka, throat dry. Fiercer than fear, panic fluttered awake in her chest; Maegrove grew light headed with it. Miti Toto ate toads. Toads that lived deep in the forest, towards the west. Could Tekka have—why would she—
“Miti Toto?” cried Elka in a whispered scream of fury, “What are you saying?” She shook Maegrove’s shoulders, bloodied nails digging in until they threatened to break Maegrove’s skin. “Do you know where she is? Where is my daughter? Where is my daughter? Where—” like a branch snapping in half, Elka broke, collapsed against Maegrove’s chest. Deep sobs shook her body.
Staring at nothing, Maegrove pulled Elka against her, ran powder-stained fingers over Elka’s tight curls. She could not speak past the words choking her throat, words that she longed to take back, swallow, never let see the light of day. She roams the forest living off live toads and poisoned mushrooms . . . May their bones break and their tents burn . . .
Though the girl could be anywhere, the cold dread in Maegrove’s heart told her where Tekka was.
“Balayaman—yano,” laughed Jerrek, hitting Yano’s shoulder with a friendly fist, “don’t look so lanaya. She’s only one of them gopher pups.”
Yano chuckled, tugged a stray arrow from where it had lodged itself in a tree and returned it to the pack strapped against his back. He gave Jerrek a fond, gentle smile—the kind that made his amber eyes shimmer against the dark of his skin. Jerrek had such a way with words.
“You’re right,” he said, “may Mankind be rid of them.”
“Layo, that’s more like it,” said Jerrek.
But as Yano followed Jerrek back into the depths of the forest, where they would reunite with the rest of their party before beginning the long trek home, he could not stop himself from looking back over his shoulder. He stared towards the place where they had left the “pup,” as if he could glimpse the dark of her blood-matted hair through webs of shadows and leaves. Unconsciously, he fingered the sandeye that hung round his neck from a simple strip of hide. The longer he stared, the harder his thumb pressed against the flat orange stone.
“Stop lusting after the pup and come on,” called Jerrek, tucking his braid back into its bun, “you want them to leave us? We’ve got days to walk, brother, and hundreds more arrows to find. You want to walk a moon instead?”
Yano shook his head and caught up to Jerrek. “No. It’s just—” he looked back over his shoulder and frowned. “She reminded me of someone.”
“Yeah,” teased Jerrek, “the gopher we had this morning? Screamed about the same.”
Yano should have laughed, but a sudden pain in his stomach stopped him. “Nevermind,” he grunted, striding past Jerrek, “let’s go.”
“Always so lanaya,” sighed Jerrek. “—Ayo, man, my legs aren’t as long as yours, wait up.”
The two men, tall as the trees themselves, blended into the shadows. The forest soon swallowed the noise of their voices and the branches they carelessly broke. Silence fell over the trees and the infinitesimal worlds their boughs concealed. Under one of these trees, a new resident of one of these worlds croaked his wordless song into the silence.
A shadow moved, cast perhaps by a jumping squirrel-cat in the trees, or a bird landing on a branch, and startled the toad into leaving his station. He hopped from his perch: a cool, orange stone that had made for a comfortable seat. His leap set the stone into motion, and it rolled in a slow wobble over the damp earth. It stopped against a set of motionless fingers, as if it remembered them.
The fingers belonged to a hand that lay lifeless against the earth. The hand’s twin was still clenched in a fist at the body’s neck, an unseemly pendant to the necklace of blood that cut across a breathless throat. Inside the fist, a pale-blue stone.