Ayen ran, her bare feet kicking up a cloud of ash-colored dust across the parched earth. Behind her, the hooves of horses thundered like drums, drawing closer despite her desperate strides. When the rope slipped over her head, she was struck with terror—a primal fear, droned into her since she was a girl. She grabbed at it, frantic to free herself. But a harsh pull jerked her back as the noose tightened, cutting off her breathing. She went down, tumbling in an awkward heap that left her long legs splayed out from beneath her goatskin skirt. She coughed and sputtered, inhaling thick choking dust as she fought for air, fingers grappling futilely at the coarse fibers biting into her flesh. From the corner of an eye she caught sight of her captors.
They were three men, bundled in dark robes with cloths of yellow, deep blue and crimson covering their faces. The one holding the wooden pole with the noose had jumped from his horse, its sleek, black body speckled with flints of gray. He ran up eagerly as she backed away, scrambling on bruised palms and feet as best she could. But a cruel twist of his pole wrenched her neck, slamming her head down in an explosion of dust and pain. She cried out in prayer to the One Nhialic. Of all those who had abandoned her, she did not count the great Creator among them. Or at least, so she hoped.
She laid there, with her face pressed to the earth, watching her captor approach cautiously, the way one would a frightened calf that might bolt at first touch. One of his eyes was ruined, a useless bit of white flesh covered by a flap of skin. But the other, dark and trained on her, glittered with excitement. She imagined that beneath his crimson face wrappings, he grinned just as fiercely. Reaching her he quickly pressed her down, ignoring her cries of struggle as his knee dug into her back and his hand palmed her bare scalp. In one fluid movement he loosed the rope about her neck, replacing the scratchy fibers with something cold and heavy but no less constricting. Finishing, he moved from atop her and stepped back, exclaiming in satisfaction.
Ayen struggled to sit, keeping her eyes on him. Her hands went up, feeling the metal clasped about her neck and the length of linked chain extending to her captor. Her heart fell in despair. Janjawa slavers. Who else but they would be out here, on the scorched lands beneath this merciless sun, where only the banished and forsaken—like her—were forced to walk alone. She cursed her carelessness. All knew Janjawa roamed here, hunting for slaves for their coffles, to be driven to faraway markets and sold beyond the known world—at least the world as her people, the Djeng, knew it to be.
A fierce tug came on the chain as the Janjawa called to her in his tongue, a mashing of incoherent sounds no more known to her than the bleating of goats. She gazed at him coolly, but did nothing. She had watched many a stubborn cow do the same—become a rock, refusing to be moved when they did not wish. You could learn a lot from cows and rocks, if you paid attention.
The Janjawa’s good eye creased. She imagined now beneath his wrappings, he scowled. Another strong yank of the chain pitched her forward, sending her flat to the ground. Still she lay, unmoving, refusing even to sit up. From atop their horses, his companions laughed, calling out what sounded like jeers. This only annoyed her captor further. He stalked towards her, a long stick now held high, readied to lash her obstinacy. She laughed and cursed as he came, damning him and any children that passed from his shriveled loins to the hottest, most barren and scorched lands beneath Nhialic’s gaze. She was Ayen of the Akok! A Djeng! One of the First People and Lords of Men! And she would die here today than live as a slave! She gritted her teeth, waiting for the blow.
And then, he disappeared.
It was quick. One moment the Janjawa stood there, the next his body caved in and burst apart—clothing, flesh and bone, all violently rendered to pulp, as if crushed in the grip of an unseen hand. Blood spurted in every direction, and she gasped as it washed over her, sickeningly warm and unnaturally wet.
Malith. So he was here after all. But then, when did he ever leave?
Ayen blinked, wiping the gore from her eyes. One half of her face was covered in dusty earth; the other in blood. Rising to her knees, she gazed about. Her Janjawa captor was spread out in every direction, like soft aror porridge. His companions fared little better. One lay flat on his back, eyes open and staring to the sky, his glistening entrails torn out and entangled like fleshy roots with those of his horse. The third Janjawa lay crumpled awkwardly beside his bloodied steed, outstretched arms holding his decapitated head, as if trying to retrieve it. One among them, however, had lived. Ayen turned to see a lone horse, a blur of black with speckled flints of gray, speeding away in the distance.
“Run,” she whispered. “Flee from me, for I walk with the dead.”
Faint laughter echoed in her hears. It was not a good laugh, the kind that brought feelings of mirth. Instead it was filled with a coldness that cut like a dulled blade.
“Malith. When did you come to so enjoy slaughter?”
Her ghost husband only laughed harder.
It took time for Ayen to sift through the Janjawa’s bloodied entrails like some seer. Malith had whispered for her to do so, in his odd way, a voice that was not really a voice that she strained to hear. She supposed that was how the dead in their land fought to reach the ears of the living. She found the bit of metal he claimed would be there and fit it into a hole on the collar around her throat. With a turn the iron ring broke apart and fell away, landing heavy upon the ground. She rubbed her neck and whispered out a thankful prayer, relishing her freedom.
Her eyes went to the other dead. Curious, she reached out to one, gingerly undoing the crimson cloth that covered his face. She’d heard so much of the Janjawa, who moved south from the far western desert to the lands of the Djeng in their incessant quest for slaves. Many claimed they were half-men and beasts, marked by their gods with serpent snouts or goat horns they hid beneath their head-cloths in shame. But what she saw now was just a man. His skin was as ebon as hers. And though his features were not as broad and beautiful as the Djeng, his face bore no unnatural traits. Only the thick black beard that enveloped his chin and mouth marked him as remarkably different. Her fingers played along three hoops of gold entangled in that rich mass, each twice as large as her thumb and etched with designs—markings, perhaps, of his clan, or tokens to his gods. Whatever the case, he was now dead and would have no need of them.
Grimacing, she undid the shining rings, one at a time. Gold held no meaning for her. But traders claimed outlanders were as ravenous as suckling pigs to a sow’s teat over it, which might prove useful. Among the Djeng more importance was placed on beads or shells—like those that made up her Alual. The loose bodice of stringed-together red and sky-blue glass beads fringed in white draped her long and slender body from shoulders to thigh, with a broad strip of yellow studded here and there with gaak shells that hung down the front to her knees. It was her prized possession, given to her by her mother upon her first marriage to Malith.
The morning of Ayen’s dowry ceremony thirty young men, Malith’s family and friends, arrived at her dwelling in a single line, jumping and singing poetry. Malith stayed away, as was custom. In his place his father, brothers and cousins came to barter. Her initial bride wealth was one hundred head of blue horned cattle. She’d been offended. One hundred blue horns was no small number, but her family was respected enough, his wealthy enough, and she certainly pretty enough, to earn twice that. She’d voiced this to her mother and her uncles agreed, convincing her father not to accept.
The next day, Malith himself came to their dwelling, alone and stunning in the tight-fitting Malual corset of red and black beads that seemed to amplify his taut, lean frame. Her sisters had pinched her to keep her face calm, lest her pleased smile give away their bargaining position. Still, he’d seemed quite sure of the outcome, a knowing smirk on his face as he led his final addition to the dowry. It was a full-grown bull, its horns a series of remarkable red and white stripes. Red- and blue-horned cattle were common, but striped ones were exceedingly rare. There were men who would trade a thousand head of cattle and two daughters for it. The offering was enough to make her father and uncles lose all composure, and they hurriedly gave assent. Her sisters allowed her to smile then.
It was a good marriage, but all too brief. Tragedy stole Malith away, leaving her a widow. “Nhialic injures, Nhialic heals,” his mother had intoned, as Ayen sat grappling with her grief. The woman had lost more than one child in her long life, some before they even left her belly. And she had developed a way of accepting God’s unknowing will that helped her endure over the years. Ayen could only hope for a bit of that strength.
Her ghost marriage was agreed upon by both families. She’d yet borne no children for Malith, no one to carry on his name. They had tried, but no seed had planted. Now she would marry his older brother, Yar, who already counted three wives. Any children she bore him would belong to Malith, and fall under his lineage. It was a certain demotion, even if out of ill circumstance and not spite. She would enter a new household as a young co-wife and by no means an equal, not among women who already held eight children between them. But she accepted it in silence. She would be a good wife to Malith, even after his death.
Only he seemed unwilling to embrace this fate.
The first sign came on her new marriage night, during the ritual that would bind her to Malith’s spirit. A strong gale had sent up a sheet of dust so thick, people fled to their homes for cover. Six goats died, all belonging to Yar, their mouths and nostrils suffocated in dust. Old women clutched to charms and men whispered prayers, calling it an ill omen.
Other misfortunes quickly followed. Dhok cats carried off several of Yar’s calves in the night. Another day some ten blue horns were found dead after grazing on poisonous koor shrubs. That these odd happenings began with Ayen’s arrival in his household only placed blame at her feet. People whispered when she walked past or refused to meet her gaze. Mothers clutched their children in her presence and spat on their faces, a sign to ward off evil. Even her co-wives kept their distance. Many whispered it was Malith, refusing to accept his place among the dead, or hers in the living. He clung to her, they said, like a tick to a cow, sucking the life away of all nearby.
Then Yar’s eldest son took strangely ill. He lingered with fever for three days before dying. And Yar could endure it no longer. He chased Ayen from his home, pushing her out at the edge of a spear. People watched as he shouted at her in his grief, calling her an apeth. In their tongue it could mean witch or witchcraft. For her, it simply meant cursed. She fell to the ground, trembling and sobbing at his rage. Then it happened.
Yar’s spear flew from his hands. It spun high into the air, hovering for a moment, before falling with incredible force. Ayen watched as the tip of the spear found Yar’s gaping mouth, piercing him right through, emerging from the back of his neck and embedding itself into the ground. He stood there, impaled and oddly bent back, a look of disbelief still on his face.
Ayen fled that very day. Yar’s mother had insisted. She claimed to do it for Ayen’s own good, for if she stayed there, people would surely kill her. She’d bundled her with water skins and food, telling her to flee back to her parents, where she might be safe. Ayen thanked the woman between her fright and tears, wailing her endless apologies. The elder woman had only shaken her head, saying Ayen would have to find a way to bring her tortured son the peace he needed.
But Ayen had not gone home. She could not return like this, carrying with her the vengeful spirit of a dead husband. Who knew what harm she would bring? No, she’d decided to go elsewhere, away from the clans, away from any Djeng. She needed help that was beyond them. There was someone however. Someone she had heard people speak of, a sorceress who lived deep in the scorched lands. They called her the Blood Woman.
Retrieving the golden rings from the dead Janjawa, Ayen used his robes to wipe her face clean. It was then her eyes spied the gleaming thing at his waist. She reached out and tugged it free. A knife, its hilt crafted of polished ivory. It sat in a golden scabbard, studded in red and green gems that winked at her in the sunlight. Unsheathing the blade, she found a curving length of steel near long as her forearm. She let it tumble back and forth in her hands, impressed with its weight.
Among the Djeng, weapons were not common, even spears. But boys were gifted knives to help ward off predators that stalked goats or cattle. She’d pestered her brothers, as a girl, to show her how to use one, and had become well acquainted with which end was which. Placing the blade back in its sheath, she tucked it into a green-beaded sash about her waist. Out here in the scorched lands, it might prove useful. She took the Janjawa’s crimson head-cloth as well, wrapping it about her face and over her scalp, where the first bits of new growing hair provided little protection from the stinging sun. From their water skins she drank heartily, keeping a watchful eye on the vultures already circling above. They would draw larger predators, like giant kör cats that ran on four legs but attacked on two; their powerful jaws could crush a bull’s neck and would make short work of her. Replenished, she gathered herself up and set out again.
There were no more Janjawa. Nor did she spy any predators; better yet, none spied her. Once that night, she heard the mournful baying of ayolgal, long-haired wolves her people believed were the spirits of mistreated dogs. She crouched against a crag of rock that sat like a lone island, clutching the knife and prepared for a fight. But the baying soon died away, and she curled back to sleep and into Malith’s arms.
In her dreams Malith was more than a whisper or a laughing madman. He was strong and full of passion. And when she woke, her body would ache longingly in remembrance. She’d been ashamed and confused at the first dreams, when she was yet married to Yar. Was it unfaithful to love a dead husband? Her nights with him were her only refuge, even as he made her waking days a misery. Now, abandoned and alone, she welcomed his embrace whenever she closed her eyes. Yet it only made what she now sought that much harder.
The next morning was quiet. Malith was there as always—a tangle in the back of her mind that would not let go. She tried to speak to him. But as often, he was silent. Other than small lizards that skittered between the deep cracks that fractured the dry earth like an eggshell, she was alone. So this land would remain, until Nhialic remade as Dengt sent the rains that would nourish it, providing a brief flowering of life. This was proving to make her journey a punishing one.
Her water was near consumed, along with her food—bits of ayup bread, dried tuk fruit and kuin porridge. She’d tried to catch one of the lizards; but this was their land, and they evaded her with ease. At this rate she fretted she’d soon be forced to eat her skirt.
Where is your help now, Malith? Can you not keep me from this slow death? Or am I to join you in the next life? Silence was her only answer. Selfish, she thought bitterly.
It was some two days later, snaking her way through a wide, dried-out riverbed, that she realized she was being followed. She more felt than saw her follower, his presence markedly noticeable in this empty place. She fought to make him out in the distance but could not, the land bending and shimmering under the relentless heat. Not tall enough to be a man. Some predator then? A wave of dizziness washed over her and she swooned, catching herself. Her food and water had been exhausted the previous night. She’d awakened with her belly cramping in hunger and her throat dry, trying to drink its own saliva.
Her eyes scanned for a place to run. But this flat land offered no escape. She cursed, drawing the Janjawa knife from her waist. Her body was too weak with hunger and thirst to fight, but weaker still to run; she would have to stand her ground. Whatever beast thought her an easy meal would get a fight, and to the victor went the feast. She crouched low, saving her strength for the battle to come. As her pursuer came into view she squinted to see clearly.
Ayen gasped. Was this some trick? Deceptions of malicious spirits that inhabited these lands? Or was she delirious, the heat and hunger taking its toll? What she was seeing now wasn’t possible. It shouldn’t be possible.
Walking towards her was a bull. But not any bull. It was white, with thick, long horns curving up from the sides of its head. Polished smooth, they were covered with crimson stripes that bled down the front of its face and traveled on to its back. Even without the broad, colorful bead collar around its thick neck, she would have recognized it. This was Malith’s bull. This was Malith’s murderer.
She had been with his mother, helping pound seeds, when the shouts came. Men were running, carrying Malith between them. He looked as if he’d been bathed in blood. It erupted from his mouth and poured from a deep gash in his belly as his eyes rolled madly in his head. In those frantic moments she’d only caught a few words. The striped-horn bull, Malith’s great pride—twin to the very one added to her dowry—had attacked him, goring him with one of its massive horns. Their healers could do nothing. That night Malith fell into slumber and never woke with the dawn.
Seeing her husband’s murderer again sent Ayen momentarily numb, a thousand questions filling her thoughts. Then something inside gave way, like a weak bit of mud tasked with holding back a river. She screamed with a rage she couldn’t control. Her hands sought rocks, but there were none. They settled instead on the flat squares of dried riverbed, hurling them in anger. It was said, long ago a Djeng hunter killed the mother of a buffalo and the mother of a cow. The buffalo in anger chose to remain in the forest and attack man from there; the cow was craftier, entering man’s home and making man its servant. Among Djeng, cattle were wealth—sacred, protected, revered. But not this one. Not today.
Bits of earth shattered or bounced off the bull’s hide, but he did not slow his approach. Small bells attached to his horns jangled and rang, making an odd discord of music to accompany her screams. He finally stopped just short of her, standing there silent, head tilted and staring at her with one dark eye. How long she stood there, pouring out her resentment and pain, Ayen did not know. But grief could only sustain so long. Her legs gave way and she collapsed to her knees, panting for breath, her throat so dry it felt as if she’d tried to drink the dust beneath her.
“Why are you here?” she rasped. “Have you come to torment me?”
The bull responded with a terrific snort, pushing air forcefully through its nostrils. Its familiar animal scent wafted past her on a hot wind, as if to assure what she saw was no delusion of a shattered mind. Then suddenly, it tapped the ground with a hoof. Once. Twice. Then again.
She looked up, curious. The bull was driving his thick hoof into the dried earth—digging. She watched, perplexed, as he carried on his work. Then there was an amazing sight. Wetness pushed up from the parched soil like blood from pricked skin. It turned to vapor instantly, unable to survive the scorched plain. But as the hole grew deep, more wetness appeared. Water this time, spurting and bubbling to the surface—an underground spring or a bit of river from the last rains, trapped beneath the earth.
Ayen scrambled towards the tiny well, pulling down the Janjawa cloth as her blistered lips reached eagerly. The water was warm, but wonderfully real. She drank, sucking from the earth as a babe would her mother’s breast. Dirt and grit and small stones found their way into her mouth, but she filtered through them. She’d never tasted anything so beautiful. When she could take no more she rolled over onto her back, staring at the sky. Beside her the bull began to drink as well, using his long tongue to take in gulps at a time.
She closed her eyes and said a prayer of thanks. When she opened them again she found her husband’s murderer, her savior, hovering above. How the bull had come all this way, and why, she couldn’t begin to guess. More important, what did he want? As if hearing her thoughts, he bent his head to nudge her gently with a horn. When she didn’t move, he did so again, with more force. It took a moment for her to understand but then, somehow, she suddenly did. The beast was telling her to get up, to get onto his back.
How she managed to do so, she would later hardly recall. When she was young, her brothers would laugh as she vaulted onto the backs of their bulls. It had been a favorite trick. But this act took all the meager strength she yet had. At long last she sprawled atop the bull’s back, her long limbs spread out across his broad frame while her head rested on his hump. She lay panting, thoroughly exhausted from the effort.
“This changes nothing between us,” she said wearily. And her mind spun away to darkness.
Ayen dreamt. Of home. Of family. Of Malith. Even Yar. The two were proud Djeng men, running alongside their cattle. She stood between, rooted like a tree as they passed on either side. Then the striped-horn bull appeared—a monster rearing up before her, his eyes hot embers as thick, black saliva ran from his mouth. He charged, screaming with the voice of a hundred horrid beasts. She pulled her Janjawa blade then and slashed his throat. The wound bled blackness and the bull fell away, sinking with the shadowy blood into the earth.
Ayen’s eyes fluttered open to stare at a brown sky. No. It was mud. A roof, rounded like the inside of a cone. The walls were made of the same, one continuous rounded structure that would reach little more than her head were she to stand. From its walls hung the decorated skulls of small creatures, stitched-together pouches of leather stuffed with leaves and other things she could not name. She was in someone’s home. And she lay on a thick set of skins, soft like goat fur but much larger. Struggling to sit up she was cut off by a voice.
“So, you have decided to stay among the living, spirit girl.”
Ayen snapped her head about to find a woman. She was old, with skin that wrinkled and sagged even as it sought to cling to her gaunt frame. Breasts, shriveled and long past the time they could nourish children, hung like sacks of flesh almost to her waist. She sat with her legs crossed, a long, dark red-brown cloth around her waist, and an endless tangle of colorful beads, silver bracelets and other jewelry about her neck, wrists and ankles. But it was her skin that stood out— a deep crimson that extended even to her hair, which hung in thick molded tubes of clay that gathered at her shoulders.
“Blood Woman!” Ayen gasped. This was her indeed—the sorceress of the scorched lands.
“So many have named me,” the old woman replied in a flat voice. Her dark eyes barely blinked as she handed over a roughly hewn wooden cup. Ayen took it and drank, thankful to wet her throat.
“Though if they care to look close enough,” she continued, “they may notice it is not blood that covers me.” She reached down to two small bowls. One was filled with something soft and white, reminding Ayen of old, thickened milk. The other contained a coppery powder. She mixed the two and began smearing it across her bare breasts.
“The butter fat only needs a bit of ochre to make otjize,” she said. “It restores life and protects against Mukuri’s fiery eye.”
Ayen watched, only now noticing the old woman’s skin wasn’t red at all. In places where the ochre-mixture had not yet smeared it was dark—like burnt wood. Yet she was no Djeng. The length of her face and flatness to her nose marked her as different, as did her curving eyes.
“Here.” She offered over an earthen bowl of murky soup and a misshapen lump of what looked like bread. “Eat, spirit girl. I have fed you as I could these past two days.” Ayen’s eyes rounded. Two days? “But your belly will want more now that you have wakened.”
Ayen took the food but hesitated, tales of witches who tricked travelers with savory morsels filling her thoughts. But as the scent sent her stomach crying out, she gave in. The bread was hard to chew and the broth overly salty, but she ate it all—even the small chunks of meat she could not name by taste and thought better not to ask.
“Flesh is hungrier than spirit,” the old woman murmured, those dark eyes drinking her in.
“You speak Djeng, but you are not,” Ayen said, crunching a bit of bone and sucking out the marrow. Gods! She’d eat the splinters too if she could.
“I come from the far south, spirit girl. Beyond where the Djeng have roamed. But I have long lived in these lands, and learned well the tongues of those who dwell here.”
Ayen said nothing. What little she’d heard of the Blood Woman held true. That she was a sorceress from some far place who now lived alone among the wild beasts of the scorched lands. Some said in exile for a misdeed done to her people. Others claimed she was the one wronged.
“My tale is not for your ears, spirit girl,” she said, reading Ayen’s ponderous look. “Rather, you should be telling me what brings you here. In my time I have received many. Yet none have arrived as you, Ayen of the Akok.”
Ayen stopped chewing, a soup-soaked piece of bread perched on her tongue.
“How do you know me?” she stammered.
The old woman reached for a hanging flap of animal skin, pushing it back to reveal the outside. It was dusk, and in the distance the sun was beginning his descent into the belly of the fractured earth. But the old woman was gesturing much closer. Standing outside her home was the bull. He used his muzzle to push up the dirt, stopping briefly to give them a passing glance.
“The one who brought you named you,” the old woman said. “When he came, bearing you upon his back, you were more in the next life than this one. I might have let death claim you—a mercy. But he pleaded I bring you back.”
Ayen frowned. “He named me? You can speak to him?”
“When I claimed to know the tongues of those in this land, I did not mean only we who go on two legs,” the old woman replied. “He speaks in his own way, if any bother to listen. His kind called the scorched lands home long before the Djeng. He knows how to survive in this harsh place, certainly better than you. Should count yourself blessed for such a friend.”
“That monster is not my friend,” Ayen said, more venom in her voice than intended. Just looking at the bull brought her anger flowing back. She held onto that in place of strength. “Did he tell you how he murdered my husband? Did he tell you how he stole my life from me?”
The old woman nodded. “He spoke all these things and more. The other bull that bore his markings, they were brothers. Did you know? Twins born of the same womb. Among you Djeng, he is prized for his markings. But among cattle, they are outcasts, shunned even by their mothers. His brother was all he had. Then your husband took him away, a gift for your bride wealth. He was angry, afraid. In rage he lashed out, wounding your husband. He had not meant to kill.”
Ayen sat, unable to form words. To Djeng, cattle were sacred and cared for like no other possession. But never did she think they carried such feelings. She watched the bull dig about in the earth and wondered what lay beyond the depths of those eyes. For a brief moment, a deep sadness replaced her anger, a pity she’d reserved thus far only for herself. But it broke fast as her gaze roamed to his great curved horns. The red that tinged those sharp ends; was it stained, too, with Malith’s blood?
“What does he want from me?” she whispered. “Why is he here?”
“I would think that plain, spirit girl. He has come to make penance. He has pledged his life as yours until it is met. He seeks forgiveness.”
Ayen gritted her teeth, shaking her head. “That is not something I can so easily give.”
The old woman shrugged. “Those matters are your own, spirit girl. I have delivered the message as asked. Better we speak on the business you have with me.”
Ayen looked to the woman, who stared back in her unblinking way. “If he has truly told you all, then you already know.”
“Perhaps.” She lifted a bony finger, jabbing it forward. “But I want to hear you say it.”
Ayen swallowed, rolling across a knot sprung up in her throat. All this way she’d come, knowing well her intent. Yet when asked, the words buried and hid beneath her tongue.
The old woman sucked her teeth in annoyance. “If you cannot say it, then you cannot truly want it.” She turned away and Ayen reached out, clutching her arm.
“Unbind me from Malith,” she said, each word cutting like a blade. “End my ghost marriage and free us from each other, in this life and the next.” The knot in her throat loosened as she spoke the words aloud, but she took no joy in it. Forgive me, Malith.
The old woman nodded solemnly. “I can do this thing.”
Ayen released her grip and a thankful breath. To call down the vengeance of Malith’s dishonored spirit was a risk no Djeng would take. But the Blood Woman, it was said she had no fear of the living or the dead.
“I thank you,” she said graciously.
The old woman snorted. “You may thank me with payment. Or did the stories of me not make that plain?”
Ayen nodded. The Blood Woman did no biddings for free. She always exacted a price.
“My family has cattle,” she offered. “Once the marriage is undone, they could bring …” She trailed off as the old woman cackled, showing large, perfect teeth.
“Are you to marry me, spirit girl? What good are cattle here?”
Ayen grappled for an answer and remembered the rings she’d taken.
“I have gold.”
The old woman shrugged with disinterest.
Ayen became desperate. “I can clean … cook … serve …”
The old woman scowled. “Now you take me for a Janjawa, so that I need servants to fetch my water and knead my bread.” She held up a quieting hand before Ayen could start again. “I will name my price, spirit girl. You will meet it.”
Ayen stared at the sorceress, who suddenly seemed as dangerous as her reputation. When she nodded in acceptance the old woman smiled wide, the way a jackal would at a meal that had wandered carelessly into its den.
“Gold, fine cloth, cattle,” she mocked. “Those that come offer me things I care little for, things important in their world … not mine. Now, what can you give me?” Ayen flinched as the old woman’s fingers ran along her arm. “Skin still carries the softness of youth. What it would be to live in such soft skin again. And eyes, still sharp. How would the world seem from behind them?” She put a hand to Ayen’s belly and frowned. “A troubled womb though. You will bear no children.”
The words were idly said, but to Ayen they still cut sharp. So it was true. She was barren. Lost in her own thoughts, she almost did not realize the old woman’s hands had stopped—on her forehead.
“These!” she exclaimed. “I want these!”
Ayen frowned, her own hand touching the same space.
The old woman nodded. Her fingers traced the raised beaded dots that rose across Ayen’s skin. They spiraled into a pattern across her forehead and down her cheeks. They were common adornment of Djeng women, received upon leaving girlhood. She remembered the day her mother and aunts marked her with the sharp, hot knife after her first bleeding. The memory still filled her with pride.
“No!” Ayen shook her head, pulling away. “They are all I now own!” It was truth. Among the Djeng these markings gave meaning. They named her as Akok. A woman.
The old woman’s eyes were hard black stones. “I am no haggler. Accept my demands or leave.”
Ayen met her stare, taken aback by its coldness. There would be no argument. With reluctance she lowered her gaze and the old woman palmed her forehead tight. The words she whispered were foreign and brought pain—slicing her skin. She clenched her teeth and balled her fists tight, trying not to cry out. Then it was done and the old woman pulled away. Ayen touched her forehead. The skin was now smooth—naked. Across from her the sorceress sat grinning, the markings now adorning her wrinkled flesh.
“Your offer freely given is accepted, spirit girl.”
“I gave you nothing free,” Ayen said bitingly.
The old woman narrowed her eyes. “True enough. We should begin.” She rose, setting her many beads and jewelry to rattling. “Unbinding the dead from the living is no easy thing. And it will be less so with you, spirit girl.”
“Why do you call me that? I am as much flesh as you are.” Ayen had endured the seeming jibe. But her patience had vanished with her markings.
The old woman cackled, rifling through the hanging pouches on her wall. “Flesh you are, but your other foot is rooted firmly in spirit.” She rounded about, meeting Ayen’s puzzled look. “Have you not wondered how your Malith is able to enter back into our world? Ghost marriages among Djeng are common. Yet how many like yours?
“So I thought,” she muttered at Ayen’s silence. “The spirit realms are many, some say endless. We of flesh contain not enough spirit to walk them, much as they cannot walk ours. But you are more spirit than most. I can see it about you, even now. Strong, pulsing with life. This is how your Malith reaches into our world—through you.”
Ayen listened, momentarily at a loss for words.
“How did this come to be?” she asked, frightened. “Was I cursed? Did I wrong—?”
The old woman waved away her words. “No more cursed than the singer with a sweet voice. So you were born. I can teach you of it, if you wish.”
Ayen shuddered. She wanted no such thing. This spirit curse—damn what the old woman said—had brought her nothing but ill. Then something came to her.
“Could a spirit enter a dream?” she asked.
The old woman shrugged, going about her work. “Possible. The dream world is closer to the spirit world.”
Ayen recalled her nights with Malith. His warmth, his touch—
“I will need your help,” the old woman called.
Ayen pushed away those thoughts and rose. She was remarkably rested. But, as expected, the rounded roof brushed her head, causing the old woman to smirk.
“You are a tall one.”
“I am Djeng,” Ayen replied. And even with my markings you will not be.
Night had long fallen as Ayen knelt beside the sprawling pattern of white powder that now adorned the earthen floor of the old woman’s home. Candles rendered from the fat of some beast marked it, as did sharp-edged silver amulets. The pungent smoke of some burning herb escaped its bowl in curling wisps of white, choking the air alongside the old woman’s incantations.
Through a slit in the animal hide door Ayen looked upon the stars in the night sky. She could make out the bull as well, keeping a silent vigil. The claim that this beast had journeyed across the scorched lands seeking absolution seemed madness. Yet what else explained his constant presence? She had asked if a price was exacted from the bull to relay his message. The old woman had nodded, but said no more.
As always Malith was there, a faraway but close presence. She’d feared he would lash out when he realized her intent. But he had done nothing. Perhaps, Ayen mused, he wanted this as much as she.
“It is time,” the old woman declared. She lifted up a small, flat disc. One side was plain and dull; but the other was a wonder—like the surface of water that did not ripple. The old woman called it a mirror.
“Spirits are vain,” she said, handing it to Ayen. “And cannot resist their reflections. But what more are they in our realm than reflections? One look and the mirror will trap them. But take care.” Her voice turned stern. “Do not look upon the spirit when trapped, for he will seek to enter you. I will lead him elsewhere.”
She turned and gave a series of shrill whistles. After a long while it was answered with a squeak. Ayen looked down in surprise to see a mouse entering the small house. No larger than her hand, it scampered to the old woman who seized it up quickly. It twitched and squealed, but a few whispered words sent it unnaturally still.
“Your Malith will enter here.” From her waist she pulled a small dagger with a hooked end. “When he does I will end this small life. As it dies and enters the spirit world, it will draw away your husband’s spirit with it. Do you understand?”
Ayen nodded. So this is how her marriage would end … in blood.
“Good. Now, call him.”
Ayen took a deep breath and did so. At first there was no answer. She called twice more. Still nothing. Perhaps he would not come she feared—and half hoped. Then, in a rush, an unseen presence filled the small space, casting a shadow and bending the flames of the candles. That familiar, cold laughter sounded in her ears, and she shivered. Malith …
“Dead husband!” the old woman called out. “Come, show us your face! Let your wife look upon you now as she did in life!”
The presence about them stirred stronger, sending a slight gale that made the candles dance and flicker. The pungent smoke that filled the air swirled about them as the laughter grew louder. And there, above the white markings, a shape began to form.
Ayen inhaled sharply. From the midst of the smoke there appeared what looked like a man. He towered above them, a vague outline of a torso, a neck and a head. She struggled to glimpse his face, but he had no more features than he had flesh.
“Now girl!” the old woman hissed. “Call him to you! Make him look!”
Ayen gripped the overturned mirror, her breath caught in her throat. “Malith,” she stammered. At her voice the spirit turned towards her. She searched for some recognition of her dead husband, some slight resemblance, but there was nothing. With a whispered apology she pulled forth the mirror and held it high.
A terrible wail rose from the spirit that made her insides quiver as its ephemeral form was pulled towards its reflection. The mirror shook and it felt to Ayen as if someone was pushing strongly from the other side. Then in a moment it was done.
“Good,” the old woman said. She turned her gaze away as she held up the mouse. In her other hand was the dagger. “Here restless spirit,” she coaxed. “I have found a new place for you. Come now, so you can find peace.”
Ayen looked into the glazed eyes of the bewitched mouse, which reflected the mirror and the swirling spirit trapped within. Beneath her breath she joined the old woman, urging Malith into the small creature so that this grim work could be done. Suddenly the mirror shook violently, nearly flying from her hands. There was a terrific groan and then without warning—it exploded.
Ayen was thrown back, her bloodied hands holding only a piece of the glass. The rest flew out like sharp blades, shredding the mouse and burying themselves into the old woman’s arm. She cried out and brought her head forward, meeting the gaze of a large bit of mirror that sailed past her vision. For a moment she seemed to go numb. The veins about her neck bulged beneath her skin like serpents as her mouth opened wide in a silent scream. A convulsive shudder shook her body and her dark eyes rolled back until only the whites showed. Then she went still, breaking into a wide grin as a cold laugh escaped her lips. Ayen felt her stomach go hollow. She knew that laugh.
“Malith,” she dared. The old woman turned, tilting her head unnaturally to the side and glaring with bone white eyes. Ayen grimaced. The mirror had shattered and she’d looked inside. Malith had entered her, not the mouse.
“Malith,” she tried again. “You can’t stay here. You have to go.” Outside, the bull snorted loudly, stamping his hooves and shaking his head. She spared him a glance but crept forward slowly. Maybe she could reason with Malith. Maybe she could convince him to go.
The old woman suddenly erupted into spasms. Her fingers went to her face, gouging the flesh beneath the crimson ochre and cutting gashes into her cheeks. She screamed and thick black liquid poured from her nose and mouth, reeking of death. Ayen thought she would gag. In a sweep of air the old woman was hoisted back, flying from her home and into night. Ayen followed, scrambling through the door into the outside. There she found the old woman being tossed about, her body slamming the dry ground repeatedly like some doll. She tried to get close but the bull leapt up, blocking her path. In frustration she managed to make her way around him. But by then it was too late.
Ayen scrambled over, frantic and speechless. The old woman was bruised and broken. White bone showed where it pierced the flesh of one leg. Another jutted within her neck, causing it to swell. Her dark eyes were wide as she spit up the putrid black liquid. She reached out, grabbing Ayen and dragging her down as she tried to speak through broken teeth.
“Not Malith,” she rasped. She repeated it again and again, until the last breath escaped her.
Ayen pulled away from the corpse’s grasp, confused and shaking. Not Malith? That couldn’t be. She could still feel him, unseen yet stronger than ever. But wait. No. Something was different. Something wrong.
She shivered. The air seemed colder. Dead. Almost stifling. And a feeling of dread filled her within. Gods above and below! The old woman was right! This was not her husband! This was not Malith!
“Who are you?” she dared.
The voice was immediate, a whisper that rumbled.
Your husband, my wife, it mocked.
She shook her head. “You’re not Malith.”
I never claimed to be.
Ayen shuddered. Nhialic preserve her! “Who are you?” she demanded again.
That cold laughter filled her ears. Nameless.
“Nameless?” She fought to stop her voice from trembling. “Are you another of the dead then, who does not rest?” Something unseen suddenly grabbed her by the throat, lifting and pinning her harshly to the wall of the earthen dwelling. She choked and gasped for air, as all around the voice snarled and raged like a starved beast.
Frail thing that lives and rots. I am beyond life, beyond death. I am the Hidden, the Dweller in the Dark, the Nameless, for were I to reveal to you my true self, your mortal soul would shrivel and burn away.
Ayen fell as she was released, gasping for breath.
I knew this world when it was yet young, the voice roared, one of the first beings, before mortals, before even your cursed gods. It was ours to rule, to ravage. We waged wars of such horror the land trembled, belching fire that boiled seas and scorched the skies. We were glorious. Then the new gods came, usurpers, seeking to make this realm over as their own. We crushed many, trampling them to dust. But they were cunning. They tricked us! Banished us! Leaving us to wander in nothingness, never to walk these realms again!
Ayen winced at each word, laced with such emotion. Hate. Pain. Anger. Deeper than any she’d ever known. Any she ever thought possible.
But we are also cunning, the voice hissed. Across seas of time we have searched for someone like you, child of flesh and spirit. We felt your presence at your very birth, a ripple across the realms, and waited until our chance. When your priests sought to bind you to your dead Malith, I took his place.
Ayen recoiled in horror, recalling the day of the ritual, the ill wind and the omens. It had been this … thing! This was the presence she’d felt all this time. And in her dreams she had let it touch her … she had let it … She choked back the bile rising in her throat.
“You killed Yar. His son. Why?”
For the same reason I killed the horsemen that would enslave you. Why I killed this witch who would have taken you from me. We are bound now, my wife. And I have great use of you.
When the voice laughed again, Ayen covered her ears, praying so she would not weep.
It was near dawn when they set out. Ayen turned back once to gaze at the trail of smoke in the distance. Nameless commanded she set the old woman’s home ablaze. It commanded many things now, and she obeyed. It was stronger, pulled further into the world by the old woman’s spells, and by her. But it still couldn’t leave its lightless prison. Not yet. That’s what she was for.
She flinched each time Nameless called her wife. Yet that’s what she was now, bound to it by magics intended for her dead husband. The deaths that sent her fleeing her village were all its design. It wanted her here, in the scorched, barren lands where its power was greater. Most of all, it wanted freedom.
There was a place, it claimed, where the walls of its prison were weak. For time beyond time, its kind had beat upon those walls, seeking to tear them down. But they were always unable. Now, through her, they would try again.
Days passed. She was afforded only brief snatches of rest before being awakened harshly. Refusal brought punishment, unseen straps striking with such fury she blacked out. She’d become too fatigued to even eat. But her mouth was pried open, the food shoved down, leaving her throat raw and her teeth bloodied. More than once she’d feared she would die. But Nameless would not allow that, not yet. Instead it wanted her mind to shatter beneath the strain, leaving her a beast that reacted only to pain and the lash.
Her only other companion now was Malith’s murderer. Nameless had allowed her to take the bull. During her brief moments of rest when their gazes met, he seemed to speak to her, making her remember who she truly was—Ayen of the Akok. A Djeng. One of the First People and Lords of Men. Somehow she would survive this.
Ayen did not know how many days came and went. Wherever they now walked, there was no life, not even the calling of insects at night. It carried a silence that spoke for its emptiness. She was draped over the bull, her food and water near done. And there was none to be found in this dry, lifeless place. But then, they stopped. And Nameless spoke.
Here. It is here.
Ayen lifted her head, looking about through bleary eyes. In the horizon the sun was a fiery ball falling into the earth. The land about her was barren, littered with fine black rock like sand. She slid off the bull and put her bare feet to the ground, which burned hot beneath. But she endured the pain as she endured so much else.
Behold Shad Lahar! Here my fortress stood, swallowing all beneath its shadow!
“I see nothing,” Ayen rasped wearily. “Just a dead land.”
She readied herself for the blows to come for her insolence. But instead she was seized from her feet. She felt her body soar up at great speed, the wind beating her face so fierce tears streaked across her cheeks. When she finally came to a stop she hovered high in the sky, the sun now so close she thought she might reach out and burn her hands upon it. Beneath her was the world as Nameless hissed in her ears.
Look close, wife. What do you see?
Ayen looked. Across the barren land was a great mark, as if a giant had taken a blade and scarred the earth. It stretched out in every direction, made of one line that looped itself into patterns like a knot.
The mark of the young gods, across my great city! A seal to keep it trapped and hidden forever from this realm. But no longer! Already I am able to reach to it, pulling it from the void as I pull myself forth. Do you see now, wife? Do you see what is coming?
Ayen trembled. She could see it well. It was like mist slowly taking form—a looming monstrosity of black stone with sharp fingers that cut into the sky. It covered the land as far as she could see. All within it things stirred, creatures with hideous faces and twisted mouths, teeming and writhing in a dark mass. And above them all was the greatest horror of all.
The thing looked like nothing Ayen could have stolen from any nightmare. It was a giant, a massive being of pale grey flesh, long and shaped like a worm. Arms curving as snakes flowed out from it, wrapping about the stone structure. Two great wings opened wide from its back, drowning all beneath in shadow. Crowning its monstrous body was a head hidden behind a carved mask of iron that took on a new face by the moment, each more terrifying than the last. Ayen did not need to be told who this was.
“Nameless,” she whispered, gazing upon the god in awe and horror.
That cold laugh filled her ears. Soon this world will have a name for me, and men will bite out their tongues rather than utter it.
Ayen was released, falling so fast she didn’t have time to scream. She was dropped onto the ground, not gentle but at least alive. She staggered to her feet. The dark city was all about her. But it was not here, not fully, not yet. It hovered partly in this realm and the next, trying to break free of its prison. She could push her hands through its walls. And the horrid creatures that lurked within swarmed about her like smoke. Some walked on two legs, others on many more, misshapen mockeries of men and beasts. Orifices like gaping mouths filled with gnashing teeth gaped where eyes should have been, and in their many hands they carried savage weapons.
All of them would eventually break free she knew. And she would be the cause. Her presence weakened whatever barriers held the two realms apart. Soon they would collapse, and these horrors would come pouring out. This is what she would give birth to. If Nameless was the father of this nightmare, she would be its mother.
“No!” she whispered, shaking her head at the madness of it all. “This will not be!”
With careful hands she gripped the knife at her waist, sliding it from its scabbard. She let a finger run across its edge, cutting the skin easily. Yes, this would do if she had the resolve. Nhialic pray she did. Nameless had not thought to take the weapon from her; such a thing could do it no harm. But it did not know her strength, and to what limits she would go. Indeed, she had not known until this very moment. Only, she would have to be quick.
Bringing up the blade, she placed it on her neck, the cold iron seeming eager to bite her skin. The cut would have to be deep, so that when she spilled her blood, death was assured. She whispered a prayer, prepared to drive the blade home when something knocked her down hard.
Ayen fell sprawling, the bull standing over her. He stamped his hooves and shook his head. She scowled. Was the beast to betray her now? When she again readied the knife he struck again, knocking the blade away. She gasped in exasperation, readied to lash out. But he had latched onto her skirt and was tugging hard. When she managed to break away there was a tear as the goatskin shredded. Items she’d tucked away spilled out, falling to the ground below: three golden rings, the scabbard to the Janjawa knife and something that glistened, which the bull stamped his hoof at.
It was a bit of glass, from the old woman’s shattered mirror. She’d taken it, thinking perhaps she’d like to glimpse her face again one day. But what use was it now?
She looked at the bull perplexed. “What do you want?”
He stamped his hoof again at the mirror and snorted heavily. She recalled the old woman’s words. The beast could talk in his own way, if any chose to listen. As she looked down again at the mirror, he slowly walked forward, lowering his massive head until it rested on the Janjawa blade. And in that moment, Ayen suddenly understood. Penance was what he sought, the old woman had said. To atone for taking Malith’s life, he had pledged his own.
“You would do this?” she asked. “For me?” His unblinking eyes stared up in answer. Ayen nodded once in silent acknowledgement, and wasted no more time.
She snatched up her knife and the piece of mirror and turned to stare up at Nameless. With the blade to her neck she drew on all her strength and screamed out her defiance. The monstrous being turned its attention, untangling its great body from the city and surging towards her. Even unsubstantial as it yet was, when that massive, horrid iron mask reared up before her she nearly fell away in fright. The voice thundered.
You need only wait a few moments longer, wife, and I will grant you death.
“Or I take my life now!” she spat back. “And leave you in your prison!”
Nameless snarled with the fury of a tempest. Just a thought and I can grind the bones in your frail flesh to powder, leaving you alive only long enough to be of use!
“I have another idea, husband.”
From behind her back she brought up the bit of mirror, letting the spirit gaze at its reflection. Nameless let out a deafening howl and the face before her began to waver, collapsing into mist. The old woman had showed her this trick. The mirror captured spirits. And for all its power, Nameless was still spirit! Its vaporous body quickly lost shape and flowed speedily into the glass with all the strength of an unleashed river. The force of it staggered her to her knees, but she held strong until it disappeared inside.
She released a thankful breath, but the work was partly done. Like before, the mirror would not hold such a powerful being. Already it trembled and shook. Turning she found the bull gazing at her. His head dipped lightly, an acceptance of what as to come. Ayen turned away and lifted the mirror, letting him gaze fully at the spirit trapped within.
The bull’s eyes rolled back until only the whites showed, and thick, black liquid that reeked of death poured from his nostrils and mouth. She scrambled away, as he made unearthly sounds and his body kicked and flailed wildly, echoing into the night. Nameless. Trying to break free. But the bull held him, fought him, and kept him there—just long enough for her to act.
Ayen was no warrior. But as all other Djeng, she’d grown up around cattle. The trick was to come from behind, where they couldn’t twist their heads to see. Then it was just a simple matter to leap up upon their backs. And if you could grab the horns, there was something to hold to. She managed it as easily as when she was a child, holding tight as the possessed bull struggled madly. Draping her arms about his thick neck, she pressed the Janjawa blade into the soft flesh.
“Farewell, husband,” she whispered, and with one wide sweep, opened the bull’s throat.
She was sent flying, landing on her shoulder in an explosion of pain that made her scream. Fighting from blacking out, she looked up in time to see the bull’s front legs give out—blood flowing in torrents from the gash in its throat. Out too came the black liquid, disappearing into the ground that drank it eagerly. It was as the old woman said: in death the bull was taking Nameless with him, out of this world and back to its dark prison. Far across the blighted landscape, lines glowed bright in the black earth—the sigil that held Nameless and its city, coming alive to trap them once again. Then, abruptly, all fell silent.
Ayen looked around. Nameless was gone. So was the dark city. The sigil too no longer glowed. She raised her scraped and bruised body, one arm dangling uselessly as she stumbled over to the bull. It sat, tongue hanging from its mouth, as blood poured freely from the wound she’d inflicted. She nestled against him, cradling his head and running a hand across those long, red-striped horns. He was magnificent. Pressing her lips against an ear, she whispered inside.
“I forgive you.”
It was all she could manage to say. And it was no lie. That must have been enough, for those knowing eyes turned to regard her before his body went heavy, and finally still. She whispered a proper Djeng prayer for his spirit—Malith’s murderer, her savior. It was done. She was free. And with the coming dawn, somehow she would find her way—
Ayen’s thoughts were drowned away as a sudden roar pierced the stillness. Beneath her the land trembled and heaved as if alive. Something was rising out of the earth. Something immense. Something dark. Her mind formed the coming horror before it could be seen. Nameless!
The spirit erupted from the earth in a geyser of swirling black sand, bringing a second night to the dark sky. It towered before her like an angry mountain, raging and cursing in endless tongues, struggling to claw its way free. Ayen fell back in terror, wondering if her battered body could yet flee. But even as she watched, Nameless’s prison pulled like a leash, trying to draw it back inside. The world itself seemed to bend and stretch as the ensnared god strained against it, struggling to claw free. For a moment Ayen feared it would succeed, either that or the whole world would be wrenched apart. Then with a sudden force the prison grabbed hold of its captive, and the opening Nameless had managed to create began to collapse. The god howled in anger and defeat as it was drawn back into the void. Before vanishing, it surged forward one last time, and the iron mask that concealed it slid apart, revealing what lay beneath.
The blood drained away from Ayen’s face as she stared into the many faces of Nameless, each more horrid than the next. When the scream finally erupted from her throat, she found she couldn’t stop. She was still screaming when darkness claimed her.
Ayen blinked her eyes open to find the sky, bright and blue with the sun above. She was moving, but she did not walk. She fought to turn her head, finding her neck stiff. People surrounded her. Some wore dark robes and veiled their faces. Others wore little and made their faces known. Their skins ranged from brown to ebon. But none looked to be Djeng. When she tried to rise, a hand touched her shoulder.
“Be easy,” a voice came. “Your shoulder has been set back in place, but you should not place weight upon it.” Ayen looked up to find a woman. Much of her face was hidden by rounded bits of silver stringed to beads that rattled as she moved. She looked perhaps her mother’s age with near bronze skin and lips stained black. Her mouth worked as she chewed on something continuously, while eyes as silver as her coins stared down.
“Where …?” Ayen rasped, her throat dry. The woman brought forth a water sack, letting some dribble onto her lips. She licked away the first few drops then drank until she could talk. “Where am I? Who are you?”
“I am Zara of the Amazi,” the woman replied. “You are in a caravan bound for the East lands, near the Green Sea.”
“The East lands,” Ayen repeated. She strained to lift her head slightly, gazing about. She was in a cart, pulled along by a large shaggy beast with curving, downturned horns. On either side of them were more women, two figures, each wrapped in blood-red cloth with spears and curved swords strapped to their backs. They rode atop giant, brown-striped lizards that walked upright on two legs. One of them, a woman with a conical silver helmet, turned an ebon face etched with golden marks to spare Ayen a glance, before returning her gaze to the landscape.
“You take me to a slave market?”
Zara snorted. “You wear a Janjawa veil and blade but name us slavers?”
Ayen looked down to where her hands clutched something at her waist. The knife.
“You would not release it,” Zara said, “even when we found you, lying with a dead bull in the barren lands. We carried you with us, wondering if you would wake. That was seven days past.” Ayen gasped. She seemed to be in the habit of losing time.
“Who are you, girl?” Zara asked. “You look Djeng, but you wear no markings of womanhood. And cattle-people rarely wander alone, or so far.” She paused, frowning beneath her veil of coins. “The night before we found you, there were ill omens, unearthly voices. Some claimed to see ghostly visions in the distance, a dark city …”
Ayen listened, clutching her knife tight as memories flooded her thoughts. When the woman stopped, she finally answered.
“I am Ayen of the Akok. Thrice married. Once to the living. Once to the dead. Once to a god.” Zara’s eyebrows rose, as did those of some nearby who whispered to each other while stealing glances.
“Your face is youthful,” the woman noted. “But you wear ages upon it.”
Ayen looked to her curiously and the woman pulled something rounded and small from her robes. A mirror. Ayen stared within, pushing back her veil. It had been some time since she’d shaven her scalp, as was common to Djeng women. Now a fine bit of hair grew like a field of wild grass. Only it was as white as bone, near silver. So, too, were her eyebrows. She ran fingers over them in wonder.
“The price of looking upon the face of a god,” she murmured.
She returned the mirror and eyed the older woman with interest.
“What business do you have in the east, Zara?”
“We go to the Zaar.” Ayen shook her head, not understanding. “A gathering for wise and holy women,” Zara explained, “strong in matters of magic and spirit. All here are.” Ayen looked around at the caravan, only now noticing there were no men among them.
“Strong in magic and spirit,” she repeated.
“As are you,” Zara replied. “More than one woman here has noticed as much. It is not by chance, I think, that we have found you here in this barren land.”
Ayen felt that as well. Spirit girl, the old woman had named her. Curse it may have been, but perhaps Nhialic had set her on this path with purpose. Suddenly she wanted to know more. She needed to know more. No Djeng could speak to her on this. But the women of this Zaar …
“Can I come with you?”
Zara met her question with silence, before nodding. “I feel it may be best that you do.”
Ayen thanked her, taking a moment to dwell on her hasty decision. There was nothing for her at home. To her people she was still cursed, and no man would have her as a wife. She would remain at her family’s compound, spending life as her mother’s attendant. No. If this bizarre journey taught her one thing, it was that there was much to learn in this world. Besides, she had never before seen a sea. Her eyes wandered back to the strange older woman.
“Zara, how is it you speak Djeng?”
The woman gave her an odd look. “I do not speak Djeng, child. Nor are you speaking it now. You speak Amazi, the very dialect of my own clan, with ease as if you were born to it.” Ayen glared, only now realizing her mouth forming unfamiliar sounds. “You have spoken that and many other tongues in your sleep these past days. It has been … remarkable … to hear.”
Ayen could only stare back in wonder. Nhialic keep her! What was this? You looked into a face of a god, she reminded herself. Who knew what other changes may come?
“Three husbands you claimed to have,” Zara said, breaking her thoughts. “Is one of them, then, the father?”
Ayen glared at the woman perplexed. “Father? How do you mean?”
Zara frowned. “You must know you are with child.”
Ayen felt every part of her body tremble as she shook her head. “That’s not possible,” she whispered hoarsely. “I am barren.”
Zara lifted a bejeweled and painted hand to Ayen’s belly, feeling about. “Barren you may have been, but this womb now carries life. Freshly planted, but strong. I ask again, who, then, is the father?”
Ayen said nothing, a hand moving slowly to caress her belly as her eyes wandered across the sands that seemed to rise and fall like her thoughts, in boundless waves.