The land was warming, the grasses were returning sprouting from the ground. The skies were often cloudy as the tribesmen set fires to burn away the dried reeds from the plains. The caves sang as green men dug for water so that their gardens would prosper.
"What is that girl's name?"
"The one who made you a fool to my face. Will you bring her to me?"
"She has left, Shaman. She is home."
"I should teach her my ways so that she could meet the swamps. She would be a strong witch. They grow few in number, few as we do. Many winters have passed since I have seen the witches, and perhaps they no longer exist."
Naltu shook his head. He knew Mellosin wished something else. "You offered. She declined."
Mellosin nodded slowly. "You brought me to conflict. I tire of you following me. You are strong enough to walk alone. I have known this for too long. This lazy old man enjoys the comforts that come by the side of the young. You'll leave tomorrow and wander the world. Tell me of the Seeds of the Gods. Are you ready? Or will you run to your brother and beg for his leavings?"
The old man taunted him, but in truth Naltu did wish to return to the folk. He made an oath, one that ensured the prosperity of the tribes. Hisimtu, Naltu's father, had disobeyed the Gods. Naltu's mother was punished, dying in childbirth. Naltu was marked, not his flesh, but his spirit. Naltu had spent five winters hungry in the huts of the women after Hisimtu had been chased away. He had no future and no strength until Mellosin took him.
Mellosin was not generous, and was not a fool. Naltu was strong and the Gods worked through him well enough, and the price of the Gods was steep. So Naltu worked the rites and sacrificed for the festivals, and Mellosin sat fat and fed in the comfort of the girls. Naltu wondered why Mellosin seemed to rush to give that away.
"I will run to the feet of the Gods. I will taste the lips of Chokimero. I will sip the blood of Jihintasula. I will kiss the toes of Myristoyla. I will smell the sweat of Ryusupo. All of this I will do for the Gods, as you demand, as you have taught me."
Mellosin smiled fondly. "Do you know the nature of the Seed-Stones? The Ruby and Emerald, the Opal and Amethyst?"
"Yes, Shaman. I have smelled the scent of the Flowers."
"Very well. The Overseer Agrima watches you. Sleep now. Tomorrow you will step to leaving the life of man behind. Collect the Stones and let them grow in your throat. This is my last demand of you."
Mellosin first told Naltu of the task while he was still a child, that he would go alone in search of the rarest of plants. The task seemed too much. Growing, though, traveling for ritual and trade among the tribes, Naltu had covered many times the distance of the island. He was ready to leave.
He went south. He found the tribe of Uhwrail and traded with them. From the Uhwrail he filled his pack with preserved food and liquor. The food would last a week if he didn't forage, and far more otherwise. He traded for a northern machete to wear opposite the short curved blade of the green men. He marched south, filling his belly with the flavorful meat of wiry winter hares as the days grew longer. Even as the sun fought to kiss the soil with life, the wind became cold until the frozen dirt was replaced by blue ice.
His pack half-empty, he found strange birds. They were bulbous and black and many in number. They swarmed so densely that the ice could not be seen beneath their clawed feet. They hunted the small fishes in the water. Naltu learned that their fat was pleasant and the thin down feathers were warm. They harvested the swarming silver fish, and he in turn took the birds. He wove their skins into a layered cloak. He lit fires and boiled the fat. He kept the wax the Uhwrail used to preserve food and hunted until his pack was full. He crafted more skin onto his traveling furs, oiling and waxing the seams.
He made a hood from the skin and fat, and chipped ice with his machete, and dripped water and sewed until the ice was sealed. He polished the ice with water until it was as clear as the sky, and fitted the hood over his head. He walked to the southern sea and swam with the birds. He carried stones so that he dove deep. The air stayed with him. He searched the rocks under the water and found the small red flower shaped like the cones that fall from the evergreens. He plucked the flower and rose to the surface and let the birds push him back onto the ice, as they did their brethren, and he asked for forgiveness.
He slept and dreamed and woke. He followed the shore west and north until the ice became crumbling sand. The days grew warm and the bird-skin began to rot so he boiled the fat out and left the rest behind. Tiny crabs scuttled around the barren shore. Naltu searched by night for holes in the sand, seeking the den of mice. The mice left trails in the sand, and Naltu followed the tracks to a patch of earth-colored plants. The leaves were brown but the last measure of softness had not yet been driven out by death.
The mice would feast on the roots and Naltu searched for a day before discovering a whole flower, perhaps the first of the season. He plucked the white puff and rolled oiled leather around it for protection.
Naltu traveled east, then, until he found the Ghislail people who roamed the plains with carts pulled by goats. He traded with them, leaving behind the preserved bird-fat for moist maize-cakes and the colorful stones of the green men. Further east he walked, into the mountains and beyond, until the trees reached higher into the sky, touching the clouds.
He left his pack on the ground, tying a long length of flax cord to a strap and then around his waist. He climbed until the cord grew taught, then pulled the pack to him. He lay the pack on a sturdy branch and climbed higher, moving like a caterpillar. The sun fell, and he lashed his legs and chest to the wide branches and slept. He did this for three days and nights, climbing, pulling, and sleeping, until the whole country lay before and below him, and his lungs burned for air.
He could see the sands to the west, and the tundra and ice to the south, and the ocean to the east. The black swamps lie to the north, steaming in protest of the rising sun. The tiny birds had risen from the cold ground and nested in hunt of warmth that would remain, and searched the tops of the trees for the wicker nests they wove. His eyes struggled against the bright sky, but he found such a treasure, and marking the tree on a bit of skin, climbed down and then up. His pack was empty of food when he plucked a mottled sphere from the droppings in the nest. He wrapped the mushroom carefully in leather and descended. Exhaustion overcame him before hunger could, and he slept and woke. He knocked the ice from tree bark and chewed the fibers, filling his belly with the sweet resin they held.
Naltu followed the trees north until he could smell the stench of the swamp where the witches lived. He hunted a wolf, the only meat he found, savoring the fat and muscle and marrow. He preserved the pelt. The ice covering the swamp cracked and melted and the stench grew stronger. He hunted beavers, collecting the teeth and fur and consuming the rest.
He found a cave, and inside, a sleeping black bear. He slew the bear and lay the flesh outside to freeze for preservation, and he feasted and slept for seven days. His muscles swelled and his belly grew round. Naltu felt ready to face the witches. The swamp was small and could be passed in two days. But he walked north and then east until his belly flattened and his pack was light, and though he should have been drowning in the waters of the sea, the swamp stretched on.
The moon rose full in the sky. Naltu turned in his sleep and opened his eyes before a small thatch hut. The straw was bound by black tar, slick in the moonlight. A narrow clay chimney penetrated one wall and a stream of fragrant smoke filled his nostrils. Naltu rose and dropped from the boughs, tumbling into the water. Soaked, he approached the door, forcing the stubborn wood open.
Two women stared at him, roused from straw pallets and alarmed at the intrusion. Naltu uttered a hasty apology, and bowed his head.
"Who are you?" asked the first.
Naltu ignored the question. His eyes rose, and he saw that the speaker bore scars over her eyelids, and burns sealed the ears of the other. Each held the hand of the other.
"I am Naltu. I come seeking the bud of the low flower we call glory."
"You are no Shaman. Who sends you?"
"Mellosin, Shaman of the South. Mellosin sends me to collect the flowers so that I may please the Gods."
The blind woman laughed, and the deaf woman cringed, shrinking away. "Mellosin is no Shaman," the blind woman offered. "And neither shall you be."
Her fingers worked with nervous energy. The other woman spoke. "Riyadh was the last of the true Shaman. He has been a hundred winters gone. Summer has not yet returned."
Naltu moved closer to the women. They had soft skin, young enough that he found attractive. The gowns they wore had aged poorly. Shadows of flesh stared through small holes where insects had devoured the fabric.
"You'll give your life to the Gods, then?"
"Yes," Naltu replied, nodding to the blind woman. "Who is Riyadh?"
The deaf woman's fingers twitched and she turned. A glimmer of recognition flickered in some part of his mind. "Riyadh is my husband."
"How can he be your husband if he is a hundred years dead?"
"Gone, not dead, and we witches live outside of time," the blind woman cackled with a voice that could not come from one with a smooth face.
"He wants our flowers?" the deaf woman asked, eyes turning to the other woman's lips.
"Yes, our flowers. You can have one, but there is a price. A cheap one, for a man who's life is forfeit, though he not know it yet."
The deaf woman produced a knife from her sleeve. "He is beautiful," she sang. "Give me your ears, young boy, and you may have my flower."
Naltu shrugged, stepping forward. "You wish my ears for your own? To hear again?"
"Riyadh will come home, and I will hear through your ears. This is my price."
Naltu laughed. "I'll offer you ears of your own making."
He clasped his hands to the side of her head. She lifted the knife to his neck, and then hesitated. His fingers flushed with green light, and she squealed and fell back. Thin lines shifted across Naltu's face, and his joints ached. Blood dripped from the side of the deaf witch's face, and she shrieked.
"What is this? My hairs tremble." the blind woman asked. "A flesh weaver? Another weaver? Then Riyadh is dead."
"Is that your voice?"
"How old is Mellosin?" asked the blind witch.
"He has never said. Perhaps fifty summers?"
"Far older than that," she laughed. "But his skin is wrinkled? His hair grays?"
"He has little hair. His teeth are rotten but sharp enough, and his skin is taut."
"Truly, then. A flesh weaver, wife, and Mellosin is old. We have drifted too long. You bring us poor tidings, tribesman."
"Finish," the other woman said, approaching Naltu. "Finish what you started. I am not whole. Do this and the flower is yours."
Naltu placed his hands to her head and wet his palms with her blood. His skin paled and shrank, and hers grew. He felt her warmth and desire grow. He knew the shape she was meant to take, and he burned his own life and crafted his own strength onto her face. He reeled, the memories of the flaming steel that had cut her ears away and pierced her skull filled his mind with harsh tongues. His hands were thin when he finished, and the woman stepped away. She polished a piece of glass with her arm and admired her reflection.
"Speak, wife," she commanded of the blind woman. She heard the words clearly.
"You can hear me? He is descended of Riyadh. Does this truly mean my husband is dead? Well, then. I did not know you for my grandson. Though no Shaman shall you ever be, I will give you my flower."
He took a small bud from her hand. She pricked his arm with a dagger as he drew close, and she tasted the blood.
"I'll remember you. Send Riyadh to us if you find him. Tell old Mellosin we await his drawing to a close."
"I do not know your names?" Naltu asked.
"No," the healed woman replied. "You won't. You must know my name before you can hear my name."
The blind woman pointed to a wall, decorated by a large scroll painted with foreign letters. "That is my name," she offered.
"Good night," the healed woman said. "We tire. Go. We have no boon to offer you, not until you have one to give my wife."
Naltu bowed low, turned, and left the cabin. He was surprised to find himself near the edge of the swamp. His stomach raged but the tree where he tied his pack had vanished. He patted the leather scroll in his jacket where he had placed the buds, and checked the machete and axe and blade he carried. The swamp moved around him as the stink filled his mouth.
He was pleased to pluck a small frog from the water. He pinched the frog's skull between his fingers and then swallowed the thing without chewing. His stomach turned, threatening to erupt, but he struggled and settled. Naltu moved west into a barren plain filled only with dirt. Nothing moved, and Naltu's hunger grew so that he searched for ants. He thought of corn cakes and fat and the roasted festival meats. He dreamed of Sijhi stewing small hares for him.[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]