by Sara Norja
My father thought me beautiful, for he saw my mother in my deep-set eyes, my russet brown skin, in the sharp lines of my face. I hated each feature my half-remembered mother had given me. As the years laid their heavy blessings on my growing body, my father became restless. He repeated with a misplaced devotion the name my mother had given to me: “Tuar, my exquisite Tuar.” His eyes clouded till his widower’s sight couldn’t tell wife from daughter. His breath was a monsoon on my neck.
That’s when I ran.
I ran recklessly into the forest without thought of future, for the past breathed heavy behind me. The past chased after me on the leather-clad, soft-soled feet of my father’s soldiers. He has gone mad in his chase of my mother’s spirit, I told myself. She was not reborn in me: she still lived for some years after my birth. How could my father be so blinded by my resemblance to her?
He is not your father any more, said a quiet voice deep inside me.
Not after what he did.
◊ ◊ ◊
I kept running till my breath burned and the trees were mere blurs on every side. My muscles were shrieking for a reprieve, but I could still hear the distant clank of spear against shield. I had not lost the soldiers yet. I crossed every stream I could, to hide my tracks and get spiritual distance. The forest’s running water, they say, can rise to swallow up past darkness. I prayed it would.
Near twilight, the din of clanking weapons drew closer. Like a cornered animal I panicked and stumbled on a massive tree-root stretching down to a dip in the ground.
The trees in this part of the forest were as wide as houses, their roots clambering over the earth to reach the streams and still waters. Desperate, I scrambled down and found a deep hollow between the great tree’s roots. Ferns covered the swampy ground next to it. I lay hidden there for a long time, till all I could hear was the forest: the trees sighing, birds chattering, and small animals rustling in the undergrowth. The soldiers had passed onwards. A hot rush of relief washed over me like the summer rains. I climbed back onto drier ground. My black hair reeked of swamp water and coiled even tighter from the moisture. My shirt clung to me, wet and heavy. I stank, but they hadn’t found me.
I stumbled on well into the night, away from my father’s palace and away from the soldiers, till the chase was but a patter of feet, a clatter of spears in my dreams. I ran on till I could run no longer. Ragged-throated, feet bleeding where my sandals had chafed them, I slowed down to a walk.
I didn’t know where I was. I breathed in the marshy, stagnant air and listened to the night sounds of the forest. I was lost, tremble-legged, and so hungry my stomach prickled and shouted.
But I had evaded the king’s soldiers for now. I curled up in another tree-hollow, too exhausted to fear jaguars or other beasts. The moss under me felt softer than any sleeping-mat, and I soon fell into a dark, dreamless sleep.
◊ ◊ ◊
On the third morning, I awoke to the chattering of birds and a growing light. When I opened my eyes, I yelped.
Almost transparent in the moist morning air, a small sphere of light bobbed before of me. I stared at it warily. Perhaps it was just an illusion caused by hunger. During the past days I had eaten all the plants I’d been taught were safe; but in my past life I had been lazy with my woodcraft, preferring to concentrate on the smooth movements of the defensive discipline taught by my bodyguards. I had never expected to wander pathless in the wilds in the wake of the monsoon. Perhaps I had eaten something poisonous. Perhaps I would die. My body, too like my dead mother’s, would rot and be devoured by the smallest creatures of the forest.
The vision before me did not fade. I had heard tell of ghost lights, fool-fires my nurse had called them: trickster creatures that lurked in the deepest forest where humans had not set foot in centuries. I had taken them for a tale spun by my nurse. But the sphere hovered in front of me as if curious.
I rubbed the sleep-bleariness from my eyes with my grubby hands. Panic filled me as I gained full consciousness, as it had done every morning. I listened for the chase, but could hear nothing but the birds.
They’re gone, I told myself. You’re all alone in the world, but you will never have to see your father again.
The thought rang like a bell within me. Despite being hungry and lost in the forest, I broke into a smile. I sat up and contemplated the ghost light. As if it had noticed my movement, it bobbed a little higher and retreated.
I didn’t want it to go away. This strange sphere of light didn’t really count as company, but it was the closest thing I had right now. I got up slowly, muscles trembling. I had run longer than ever before over the past days, and my body told me so with every aching movement. I stumbled a few steps towards the ghost light. It retreated yet again, hovering now at head-height beside a small thicket of young shoots. I limped towards it, yearning to get closer.
The ghost light fled before my steps, but never out of sight, even though the undergrowth was dense and wild. I followed. All day I followed it, aching muscles and hunger forgotten in my desire to catch up to the creature. My consciousness faded, and my body became a tool for getting closer to the shining light.
◊ ◊ ◊
I stubbed my toe on a rock and snapped back into full awareness. The sun told me how much I had lost of the day: it was nearing evening already. And there was the ghost light in front of me, shining more faintly now. The trees grew less dense in this part of the forest and there was more sunlight despite the gathering dusk. I stepped forward to touch the ghost light – and it vanished entirely.
Bitter tears sprang to my eyes. It was too cruel, to lose the creature after such a long pursuit. I fell to my knees bruising them on sharp tree-roots.
Through my tears, I looked up and saw I was at the edge of a clearing. Almost I forgot my disappointment as I saw the great stone walls rising to tree-height and beyond. Where had I wandered?
The forest was dense and vast. My people knew little of other lands or peoples apart from wild rumours. A few times, we had encountered strangers in trade, but my father had discouraged such dealings. My people stayed within the lands of our ancestors.
I heard a harsh voice behind me. I scrambled to my feet and turned to see a man clad in the green of the forest. His eyes were dark as the earth, and his skin was like mine, a rich russet brown. He sounded angry. I couldn’t understand a word.
I had known other languages existed, somewhere, far away, but this reality where someone spoke to me and I was as lost as a newborn – it filled my heart with the swamp water of fear.
“I don’t understand,” I said. His face was open with the same incomprehension mine must have been filled with. He frowned.
I noticed the long knife at his belt, and terror clawed at me. Had I run into deeper danger?
My fists clenched, my teeth pressed tightly together. No matter what happened to me here in this strange new place, it could not be worse than the horror of my father’s love.
◊ ◊ ◊
The man with the knife took me into an echoing hall in the sprawling building of stone that lay within the walls. He was eyeing me as though I were a half-wit. He had kept doing so ever since I had spoken my language and he had not understood. I walked as in a dream, accepting that I understood nothing of the words spoken by these strangers. Strangers, to whom I was a stranger.
At the far end of the hall I stood before an old man sitting in a high seat. Gold bands adorned his wrists and neck, and he wore a tunic of soft-spun linen. He was the king; that I could tell even without language. He watched me for a long time, his eyes half-hooded. He looked nothing like my father, but I could not bear his stare. I was clenching my fists so hard it hurt. My breath came only in small gasps, as though someone were pressing on my chest. I could not look at him, but when I focused behind his seat I saw a young man with gold around his wrists. He flashed a crooked smile at me, and I looked away. I did not want smiles.
Eventually the king stopped staring and started speaking to the man who had brought me to him. As if his speech had lifted a spell, suddenly the room was full of murmuring, the courtiers’ voices rising and falling in an unfamiliar lilt. I was drowning in sounds I couldn’t make sense of. It made me feel dizzy. Or perhaps that was just my hunger, which was rising up to engulf my whole self, as if all I was could be reduced to slavering mouth and gaping stomach.
The king bent to speak with a tall, thin man with a shock of hair and deep yellow robes. After a short whispered conversation he proclaimed something to the hall at large, gesturing at me. I wondered what fate I had just been consigned to. If death, I prayed it would be swift.
They took me to the kitchens, where it was so sweltering hot that I was sure I’d drown in the heat. I was shown to a woman who I guessed was the cook. She took a long look at me and sniffed with displeasure. I realised that the stink of the swamp water must linger on me. But she nodded.
Two servants took me to a small courtyard next to the kitchen. They stripped me of my clothes till I stood naked in front of them. They poured water on me from the well in the courtyard then, and I rejoiced in getting clean. I scrubbed away the first layers of shame and fear. I started to realise that I had not been sentenced to death.
They brought me a green calf-length tunic of a strange material like rough-woven linen. It felt like the forest when I drew it over my exhausted head. The moss-like material scratched my skin, but it was clean. And it was nothing at all like the robes I had worn at the palace I had escaped from.
“Dayi,” the servants said and laughed. I stared at them, suspecting that the laughter was malevolent. But they smiled at me, so kind to a languageless stranger pushed into their midst. Almost, something began to melt in my heart.
And they gave me food. Oh, to eat after days of hunger! The simple corn porridge and beans tasted better than any of the festival foods at my father’s house. I ate till my stomach ached. My mouth felt strange; I realised I was smiling.
◊ ◊ ◊
To not share a language, I soon understood, meant isolation. Loneliness despite the constant presence of people. My mind was still clouded, as though I were dazed from the vision of the ghost light, but it eased with every day that passed. I listened to the servants as I worked at whatever simple task I was given in the kitchen or the grounds: stirring pots, grinding corn into meal, carrying deadweight sacks of produce. I listened to the women as we wove baskets together. When my unaccustomed fingers fumbled, they scolded me, and I listened although I didn’t understand.
I didn’t keep track of time passing. What mattered was that the chase was over. I had arrived here at the kingdom of Eri, as its inhabitants called it. It did not matter that my days were dull and repetitive. I worked and listened; I slept. It was enough. I yearned to feel my body straining in the seven movements of the discipline, but safety was a fair trade for movement.
Eventually, I started speaking. Haltingly, I tested out words that I had heard often enough in a certain context that I could make a guess at their meaning. Smiles and cries of “io!” encouraged me. Soon words became sentences. Their strange language was difficult to me, but I had begun to crack the mystery’s shell.
They called me Dayi, Moss-tunic, after the clothes I’d been given, common attire for the poorest people in the kingdom. I was relieved they had not asked for my birth-name, for I could not yet think of Tuar without hearing it in my father’s voice.
◊ ◊ ◊
The season changed; the winter drought came with its rough winds. We huddled close to the fire pits and told stories. The others told stories, that is; I listened, and tried to understand.
There came the day I realised I had been there many moons. And that I could understand almost everything the cook was saying. The story she was embarking on, I gathered, was commonly told in the kingdom.
The cook began, in the low tones she reserved for storytelling. A long time ago, she said, during the heavy summer rains, a strange woman came to this palace. The newcomer was a commoner, they all thought, although she must have lived in a great household as servant, for she was fair of speech.
On the night of the great year’s-end festival, a strange and beautiful woman arrived draped in a robe of thinnest linen, like a waterfall. She was dark and lovely as a summer’s night, and turned everyone’s heads. No one’s head was turned more than the king’s son’s. He sat with her all night, and gave her the golden ring from his hand. When she disappeared with the first rays of the sun, gathering shadows to her, people saw tears in the young man’s eyes.
He pined; to his father’s despair, he vowed that the only woman he would marry was the stranger he’d given his ring to.
The ring turned up in his soup a week later. Our cook took great pleasure in recounting how the cook in the tale first told the king’s son that she had made the soup: she had not wished people to know that she’d been dallying with one of the king’s guards while she left the newcomer to prepare the meal.
But the truth came out, as it will. The newcomer was brought before the king and his son. They wiped the grime from her face and saw shimmering brown; they took the scarf from her head and released a flood of long braids. They searched her room and found a shimmering waterfall of a robe.
She had not done a good job of hiding things. She hadn’t wanted to. And so the newcomer and the king’s son were married.
“‘He can’t marry a commoner!’ people cried,” said the cook. “But it turned out that she was actually the daughter of a noble lord. Why she left her life of comfort to work here, no one knows… But these old stories are full of stranger things by far.”
My skin crawled. I could think of many reasons why someone of noble birth should wish to escape.
◊ ◊ ◊
When the winter drought passed and new warmth rose to engulf us, I retreated from the confines of the kitchen. I had found the gardens within the compound, and I spent what time I had to spare wandering in them, seeking to quiet the memories that still troubled me. My father’s halls had no such thing as a tended garden; we just had fields near the palace. No garden such as this, certainly, this garden with its glory of colours, edible plants and flowers tumbling over each other to fight for life. There, I almost felt that one day I could come to full life again, such as I had not felt since I grew into my mother’s likeness and realised the reason for my father’s maddened gaze.
I breathed deeper in the garden. In the long months that separated me from my origins, I came to realise that although I was free from my father, I was not, in truth, free. I was a foreigner, still treated as a stranger despite my increasing command of the Eri language. I was kept within the walls. They were spacious confines, yes, in this sprawling compound – but it was a cage nonetheless. Sometimes I felt a helpless rage simmering within me.
Yet my mind was free to wander, and my body my own to command.
I liked to go into the gardens at nightfall, when my duties for the day were done. I slipped in through the gate in my bare feet. After the stone floors, the grass felt soft and silky on my soles. I smiled. Like most days, mine had meant sweltering kitchen heat and too many people. The garden was not the forest that breathed around us, its wildness kept out by the high walls. The forest – my protector, my safekeeper. Still, the garden had green, growing things.
A prickling of my fingertips told me I was not alone as I had hoped. Further in the garden, I saw the Magicworker taking the air.
He turned and noticed me. I went cold all over. His eyes were on me, soft as river water.
I had only seen him once before, in the king’s hall on the day I arrived at this prison of service. I had noticed his rich yellow robes, the gold glimmering at his throat. I hadn’t known who he was, but my months of servitude had taught me that he was the king’s Magicworker, a man of arcane knowledge.
He was younger than I had thought at first. No grey was in his dark cloud of hair, no heaviness in his step.
He looked nothing like my father, yet still I felt nervous, alone in the company of a man.
He was standing in front of the fountain in the centre of the gardens, next to a bush of bright flowers. The movement of the water was a soft lilt in the evening air. He said something, clearly directed at me. I felt I was back in that first moment when the guard had caught me in the forest and the kitchen girls had called me the incomprehensible Dayi. I did not understand. There was a familiar structure to his words, but the sounds were strange. I felt I should understand what he was saying, but as he kept talking, the meaning escaped me.
The Magicworker frowned as he realised I did not understand him. He frowned, and then he said: “I am sorry.” The words were inflected differently to what I heard in the kitchens each day; but I wasn’t drowning in a sea of strangeness any more.
In my bafflement, I burst out: “Why did you speak that strange language to me?” It bewildered me, that there should be so many languages. In my past life, I had known only one; and now it turned out that there were many.
“At first I did not realise you don’t understand the noble speech. You are the one they call Dayi, is that right?”
I cast him a suspicious glance. Why should he know the name the other servants called me? But my status did not allow for insubordination. “I am.”
“I heard you knew not a word of our language when you came here.”
“That’s true. But I learned.” And still it burned, that he had spoken to me and I could not understand.
“You have learned the commoners’ language very well,” he said with a smile.
“The commoners’ language?” I stumbled over the words. “Why are there different languages for nobles and commoners?” In my own language, I knew there were words that I used that the servants did not, and in turn they had turns of phrase that I did not know the meaning of. But we could understand each other nonetheless.
The Magicworker shrugged, a strangely common gesture for such a well-clothed man. He glanced at me. “I don’t know the reason, but so it is. I have gathered from old writings that the two languages were once one and the same, but the nobles have lived so separate from the common people that the similarities are obscured. Both can understand the other’s language, but it is forbidden for nobles to speak the commoners’ language and the other way round.”
I strained to understand his strange words. Then something occurred to me. “But my lord, you’re of noble birth. How is it that you speak this language?”
An embarrassed look stole onto his face. “Ah,” he said. “You have stumbled onto my secret.” His inflections seemed more familiar now. “You will not tell anyone,” he continued.
“Of course not, my lord.” I had no idea what it was that I was not allowed to tell.
“The fact is, I am not of noble birth. Yes, I am noble now, with all the trappings thereof at least: but I was born a commoner in a village not far from here.” He fingered the gold chain at his neck. “My lord the king has great plans, and he needs magicworkers for them. My natural skills were such that the previous Magicworker brought me to court when I was a child. That is why I can speak like both the commoners and the nobles.”
I was shocked that he would reveal such personal matters to a servant girl he had only just met. But thinking of my own relationship to my servants in my father’s court, I understood that he was telling me these things because we were not equal. He had nothing to lose by telling me of his origins, which were more than likely no secret despite his order to tell no one.
I could never reveal my origins. Although I had come far, if the king of Eri found out who I was, he would ransom me back to my father. I shuddered.
“Are you cold?” the Magicworker asked.
“No,” I said; and indeed, it was a balmy evening.
“Do you walk here often?”
The question fell like swamp water on my neck, leaving me trembling and uneasy. I didn’t know what to reply, what to do. I was afraid he would touch me. For a moment, I had felt comfortable. Now I was trapped again in the cage of my fear. I worried at the twisted ends of my hair.
“No matter,” he said. “I don’t come here often. Mostly only when the sarag are in bloom.” He pointed at the flowers he had been gazing at. I memorised their name. “But I’ll be glad to see you again if you chance to walk here.”
He left with a swishing of robes and the lingering waft of a scent I couldn’t identify.
He had left me alone. He had talked with me, whom he thought a servant girl. He hadn’t touched me.
The stars winked at me, so high up that they transcended every wall and cage.
◊ ◊ ◊
I didn’t hope to find the Magicworker at the gardens when I next walked there in the gathering dusk. But when day after day passed and I didn’t see him again, I found an odd knot of sadness in my stomach. He needn’t have even bothered to acknowledge my presence in the garden, but he had talked with me. He hadn’t been like the noblemen I’d known in my father’s court, who would treat the servant girls as playthings for their rough amusements. The Magicworker had talked to me as one person to another. Even the servants at the Eri court didn’t do that: they still talked to me as though I were a stranger.
Two weeks later I was busy at work measuring out spices for the king’s midday meal, under the cook’s strict supervision. She was particular about spices.
With a clattering and pattering, the kitchen door banged open. Startled, I spilled powdered cinnamon onto the table and winced at the mess. The cook let out a volley of curses too quick for me to understand. I glanced up, irritated, to see who had rushed in. It was one of the court’s messenger boys, peering into the room with his beady eyes.
“What,” said the cook with a razor edge to her voice, “are you doing in my kitchen, scrapling?”
To my consternation, the scrawny lad pointed at me. “I’ve been sent for her.” Speaking loud and slow, he addressed me: “Dayi, you’re to follow me to the Magicworker’s quarters.”
The cook huffed. “How dare you invent such nonsense! What should the Magicworker want with a foreign kitchen servant?”
The messenger boy professed his innocence and vowed he came from the Magicworker himself. “He asked for the girl in the moss-tunic, Mistress Cook! Honest he did!”
The cook sighed and gave me a long-suffering look. “Go, then,” she said to me. “Make sure you do whatever the Magicworker wants.” Her eyes narrowed on whatever, and I shivered. I did not want to be a vessel into which anything whatever could be poured.
I trotted briskly behind the messenger boy through a maze of courtyards and corridors.
“Here’s Dayi, my lord,” the messenger said when we entered the Magicworker’s lodgings. I gazed around the high-ceilinged room. The tables were full of scrolls, reed pens and ink-bottles scattered among them. Several wax tablets were strewn around, marked with strange symbols that I presumed must be writing in the local language. The walls were lined with shelves laden with all manner of strange objects, ranging from small river stones to cunningly crafted golden goblets.
The Magicworker lifted his gaze from the wax tablet he had been furiously scribbling on with a stylus. “Good. You can go now.”
When the door had closed behind the boy, he turned to me. I quailed before him now, him in his own habitat, and me a lost girl in a foreign land. Me with my dark memories that were shooting up my skin with every look a man gave me.
I steeled myself. I glanced at him, not fully in the eye, aiming for a servant’s humility.
“You are probably wondering why I summoned you.” His noble inflections were still confusing, but his words came slow and steady, seemingly for my benefit. I was baffled by his sympathy.
He cleared his throat. “I am going on an expedition into the forest’s depths, Dayi, and I need you to come with me.”
I stared at him, humility lost. “Me, lord?”
“I have talked with the guard who brought you to the king’s hall. He said he found you in the forest, half-starved and speaking a strange tongue.”
My thoughts reeled back to that day many moons past. How lost I had been. How the ghost light had brought me to this place and vanished before I could reach into its glow.
“You come from a long way away, don’t you.”
My jaw tightened. I didn’t want to answer any questions. No one had made me fabricate a story of my past, and I didn’t wish to tell falsehoods now. But I was not going to tell the truth, either. I would never tell the truth.
The Magicworker’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “Where precisely you come from is not my concern, although I must admit it’s a fascinating mystery. What I am interested in is your knowledge of the forest. You have wandered far in it. You have tasted some of its mystery. And” – he came closer, and I flinched – “you know some of its magic.”
How could he know that I did know a sprinkling about forest magic because of my encounter with the ghost light?
“It’s written in your eyes, Dayi,” he said before I could ask, “for those who have the power to look.”
“I don’t want anyone looking in my eyes,” I said, speech clumsy. I concentrated on the floor beneath my bare feet. A beetle was making its way across one of the stone flags.
With a rustling of robes, the Magicworker went back to his table. In a voice so quiet I could barely hear him, he said: “I mean you no harm.”
I wasn’t sure I could believe him. My father, after all, had said he wished me nothing but good.
“I wish for you to come with me on this expedition,” said the Magicworker. “The king has agreed to grant this wish on the condition that I return you to the court once we are done. He fears you will go back to where you came from and reveal that a rich people live here, and next we will see armies searching for our gold.”
A choked laugh escaped me. “I will never go back.” Then I tightened up again. I feared my bitter tone had revealed something about my past.
“Well then,” said the Magicworker. He was not going to address the issue. “Bring what clothes you own and fix yourself a sleeping-roll. We leave tomorrow.”
◊ ◊ ◊
We set out without ceremony, for the Magicworker said the king’s court had no need to know of his comings and goings. We had gathered in the eastern courtyard, near the small gate at its edge. Dawn’s questing light was reaching over the treetops.
I was still astonished that he had chosen me to join him on this secret expedition: I was a stranger, a lowly kitchen servant. His other companion made far more sense.
“This is Niani, my assistant and bodyguard,” the Magicworker told me in the commoners’ tongue. He turned to Niani and said in an apologetic tone, “She doesn’t understand the nobles’ language, so I must speak in the commoners’ manner although it’s not precisely proper.”
Niani nodded, betraying no signs of censure. She was clearly proficient in both tongues. A tall woman with the bad posture that probably came from constantly bending down to talk to shorter people, she did not seem easily shocked. I hadn’t had reason to speak to her before, for she was of a higher class of servant. My heart beat a nervous pattern in my chest as I considered the fact that I would be travelling together with these new people for almost a moon-cycle. Niani wore a simple travelling tunic and was bowed down to an even more crooked position under the weight of the pack she carried.
“We don’t have a pack animal.” I regretted the words at once, but the Magicworker did not rebuke me for speaking before being spoken to.
“We will be going into parts of the forest where I suspect a mule would only be in the way. Together we’ll carry what we need.” He shouldered his own pack with an effort. I was only a little surprised he would deign to carry a burden himself.
Niani’s dark eyes measured me. I could sense she was dubious of my inclusion among the expedition. But her eyes were not unkind.
“This is Dayi,” the Magicworker introduced me in turn.
“Yes,” said Niani, “she is, is she not?” She eyed my moss-tunic, which had lightened several shades in the sun and was quite worn from use. I had no other clothing apart from my loose pantaloons and a short cloak given to me by the cook. My feet were bare. I didn’t know what had happened to the sandals I had walked into the compound with.
“The sun is rising,” said the Magicworker. “It’s time for us to leave.”
I shouldered my pack with a surprised grunt. It was heavier than I had thought. I gritted my teeth. I was still not used to such burdens, although my work in the kitchens had made me hardier than I had been in my past life.
We went through the gate, where a single guard nodded sleepily at us. Then we were past the grey stone wall that marked the outermost bounds of the court compound – of my cage. A shiver went through me. Even though it was only for a while, I breathed the forest air again. My safeguard, my green hiding-place of roots and hidden streams.
My feet greeted the springy moss bordering the path like an old friend. The burden on my back pressed against my shoulders, but my step was light. The forest, its green smell. How it groaned and muttered around us.
I was not the accursed king’s daughter here, nor was I another king’s slave. I was just Dayi, in my tunic of moss weave. I was Dayi, following the Magicworker in his yellow robe, following Niani in her earth colours.
In truth, I had almost forgotten the name my mother had given me.
◊ ◊ ◊
On the second day of our journey away from the Eri king’s court, we had already passed into strange lands. We travelled north and west; the Magicworker said that the king’s hunters never went north, for the best game was to the south and east. But with a faraway look and a glance at the small wax tablet in his belt pouch, he said that his calculations pointed northwest.
I didn’t know why we were travelling, but I kept my heart calm. These lands were as unfamiliar to me as the Eri king’s court. My father’s lands were many days’ travel in the opposite direction, or so I supposed.
The trees we travelled among dwarfed the trees I had played among as a child. As we walked in single file, they cast us into cool shadow. Patches of sweltering sunlight reached the ground with its ferns and moss, but the trees reared up, green giants. We could hear the creatures of the forest moving around us, but they were wary and hid themselves. Birds were the only creatures we saw with any regularity.
I felt that I came to myself again, as we walked, as the forest grew around me. I had been in servitude for so many moons that I had lost the thread of my life. The thread that my father had frayed. But now, in the wild, the thread was starting to weave itself together again. I didn’t know where we were, but it was a place without walls.
After this expedition, I would be brought back to the kitchens. The Eri king did not want me to escape.
I was fleet-footed. If I ran into the forest, I might find another settlement. More likely, I would run until I starved. The forest was vast; some said it spanned the whole world. In its depths, an untrained refugee could come to great grief.
Such thoughts were with me as we continued our journey. The Magicworker and Niani were both silent. After the chatter in the court’s kitchens, the quiet was like the touch of water on sweaty skin.
We followed no discernible path, and but for the Magicworker, we would have been lost. I never saw him use magic, exactly, but his whole demeanour reminded me of a hunting hound. When we camped at nightfall, he would stand still, eyes closed, breathing deep and steady. Niani muttered something about magic, catching my eye with a wink, and I tried to catch him doing astonishing things. But he just stood and breathed, echoing the trees in their leaf-rustling.
◊ ◊ ◊
I had not asked for our destination, nor had the Magicworker said anything about it. I assumed he knew where we were going. To wander aimless in the forest was madness. I did keep wondering about the reason for this expedition, though. Above all my thoughts circled around why he had wanted me with him, when I had been utterly useless so far.
There came a day when the Magicworker paused mid-step. “I’ve lost it.”
“What is it?” asked Niani.
“I’ve lost the path,” he said. His cloud of hair seemed to loom even darker around his head. “We have to stay here while Niani and I find a solution.”
The path he spoke of must be a path woven of magic; as far as I was concerned, we had lost any clear path soon after we left the Eri compound. But I didn’t know anything of the magic that was so familiar to the Magicworker and his assistant.
They talked among themselves in the nobles’ tongue and sketched strange patterns in the air. The crease between the Magicworker’s eyebrows was a deep furrow. I wanted to smooth the worry away from his face.
Startled by my thoughts, I concentrated on digging a small fire-pit. Earth, my grubby hands; calm, repetitive movements. Once the fire was lit, I made rolls from our supplies of corn flour and boiled water for tea. We settled down to eat. I felt closed inside myself, a door snapped shut that had just begun to creak open. Niani had been the Magicworker’s assistant and bodyguard for years. They shared a bond that I could not partake of, they spoke together in a language I did not understand.
The food stuck in my throat. I realised I liked these people, wanted them to like me. And that was a danger I wasn’t sure I was ready for. Perhaps it was easier to be the outsider.
Niani passed around the dried meat. I accepted some without a word, trying to avoid her eyes. But she caught me in her gaze. “Dayi, what troubles you?”
It had been so long since anyone had asked me such a question. My troubles came unbidden to the surface as they had not for many moons, choking me so I could barely breathe.
The Magicworker and Niani waited for a long, deep moment. Their patience almost undid me. Why did they not order me around like the others at the Eri compound had done? To them, I was just a servant, just a foreigner. They had no reason to treat me with such kindness.
I found my breath again, found my voice. “It’s nothing,” I said. Then I dared look my travelling companions in the eye. “Well, that’s not true. But I don’t wish to speak of it.” I didn’t want to tell them that I felt jealous of the connection they had with each other.
Instead of pressing me for more, they nodded. Then the Magicworker said: “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel from one side of the forest to the other in the space of mere moments?”
“I haven’t.” What a fanciful notion! But I was glad he had changed the subject.
“I have,” he said with a grin lighting up his face, “for many years. I’ve wondered, and worked. Did you know the forest has patches where magic runs stronger in the veins of the world, strong enough to harness and weave together?”
“I know nothing of magic.” But a small smile crept into the corner of my mouth. His scholar’s excitement was catching, although I was ignorant of the knowledge he possessed.
“I’ve worked on a great gate in a strong patch of magic many miles south of the king’s court.” The Magicworker sipped the strong tea I had made. “Now we go forth to seek another strong current of magic, where the forest has gathered its power, to build another gate. I have the feeling you’ll be useful.” Yet how I might accomplish such a thing, he did not say.
◊ ◊ ◊
A ghost light hovered by a tree-stump. Returning from passing water a short distance from our camp, I was caught by its glow, piercing in the pre-dawn air. I came to a halt, staring.
“What is it?” Niani asked. She had woken to my footsteps.
I spared a glance away from the ghost light to look at her. She was peering around, utterly oblivious to the gentle light wavering near me. Blessed Hangi! In my past life, I had thought the ghost lights a folk tale; upon first seeing one, I had judged them rare wonders, yet a tangible feature of our mortal world.
Now I wasn’t so sure. Why could I see the creature, when Niani could not?
The ghost light bobbed and wavered. It was as breathtaking as the one that had led me to the Eri court. This time I was not hunger-crazed or running for my life. Still, I felt a pull, slower but inexorable. I wanted to follow the ghost light, as if it could lead me to happiness.
I sensed Niani’s eyes on me, although I was fixated on the ghost light’s erratic movements. I didn’t dare say anything. I didn’t want the light to vanish with the dawn; but I didn’t dare tell her what I saw. She would call me crazy, and I didn’t want that. I wanted her to think well of me.
I kept staring at the ghost light as if watching would make it stay.
“M’lord,” said Niani, “something’s wrong with Dayi.”
I heard her voice as through a mist. No, there was nothing wrong with me, but of course she could not see the ghost light. Surely the Magicworker would, with all his knowledge and power?
The Magicworker was awake and up in a moment. I felt his presence behind me. A part of me screamed threat; but most of me was so concentrated on the ghost light that I could not turn.
“Dayi,” he said softly, his voice a cool stream on a hot day. “What do you see?”
“You can’t see it?” I burst out.
“Oh,” said Niani, “she’s seeing visions already, evil forest-spirits!” Her voice was sharp with concern.
The Magicworker laughed. The ghost light wavered, as if startled by the sharp sound.
His laugh died and my stomach plummeted with horror. I had shushed a noble, as if I were still a noble myself. Be too free, and they will find out.
“What do you see?” he repeated quietly. He didn’t seem offended at all.
I gathered my courage. And I realised I had no word for ghost light in this new language. “I see a bright bob of light, my lord. A fire in the air. I don’t know the word for it.”
“Ah!” He sounded pleased. “A gnahali.”
“Is that what you call the bright creatures of the air, who lead travellers astray?”
“Yes. Gnahali, glow-bearer.”
I paused, stomach clenched with nerves. “It wants us to follow.”
He accepted this with not the slightest hesitation.
“We’ll be lost in the forest even worse,” said Niani, voice dark with warning. “Following a vision is foolishness.”
“Niani,” said the Magicworker, “the very purpose of this journey is to follow my vision. Although I cannot see it, I have no doubt Dayi sees a true gnahali. They are not evil, although they are indeed forest-spirits. It’s said they show themselves to few people. Only those who have experienced grievous violence can see them clear.”
His words rang in me like a prayer-bell. I stared at the ghost light till it filled my world. I didn’t want to see his face or Niani’s.
“If the gnahali wants us to follow, we will. This may be the solution I was seeking.” The Magicworker touched my shoulder lightly. A tremor ran through me. “Keep your eyes on it, Dayi. Niani and I will strike camp.”
So it was that I came once more to follow a ghost light through the rooted domains of the forest. But this time, I was not hungry. This time, I had company.
◊ ◊ ◊
I was not as lost in the light as I had been when I’d stumbled starving to the Eri king’s walls. Still, I found it hard to concentrate on what was around me. My feet strode on, my mouth was dry. All I noticed of the forest was a green haze around me. I hoped that the Magicworker and Niani were still following, for I could not look back for fear I’d lose the ghost light. Enchanted, I followed it as it spun and bobbed a few paces in front of me. I followed till I could feel jabs of pain in my feet even through the haze.
Cool water splashed a blessing on my feet. I had stumbled on a shallow stream. I crossed, almost slipping on the mossy stones, focused on following the ghost light. I came into a haze of green dappled with brightness, a brightness so intense that the glowing sphere blended neatly into it. I stumbled forwards and tried to clasp the ghost light – it must not escape, or we would be lost in the forest and all for nothing.
But it was gone, vanished just like the previous one had. Fickle creatures, oh, it had been madness to be so compelled by the light! I sank to my knees in a soft patch of moss. Heat fell on me from the sky like an unwanted gaze.
“Dayi!” said the Magicworker beside me, and there was something in his voice that made me look up. “This is it! I can feel the magic coursing strong in this place.” Joy wavered around him.
Niani was looking around with wonder in her eyes. She sank down next to me and grinned at me. I couldn’t help answering her smile.
We were in a clearing, moss-covered, fern-adorned, and free of the trees and creeping vines that crowded around it. The sun was shining on us at its mid-afternoon slant. It was a clearing like any other, so it seemed to me. The Magicworker had spoken of gates, of travel. I could not see how this place was more full of magic than any other. It was beautiful, though. My heart felt restful, and something of the ghost light’s peace had settled inside me. And true, perhaps there was something strange in the clearing. Although I couldn’t place it, there was a gentle hum in the air, like a drone of honey-bearing bees somewhere in the distance.
The Magicworker wandered up to two trees that stood on the other edge of the clearing. They were old, gnarled, taller than the rest, awake in a riot of leaves. At the midpoint between the boles, their branches were twined with each other as though in greeting. He stared at them, a smile tugging at his lips.
“The forest itself has started the great work. Just like at the southern gate! Truly, we were meant to build these gates. This is where the fruit of years of toil will ripen. This serendipitous…”
In his solemnity, his speech lapsed to resemble the nobles’, and I frowned as I tried to understand. Niani saw my confusion and muttered to me: “He’s happy that you chanced to come to the king’s halls. Without you, we might not have found this place.”
I was but a tool to him, to be used and then put aside. The thought brushed my consciousness. I tried to suppress it, but I was exhausted. So be it. I was a tool. He’d used me in a different way, but he too had used me for his own benefit.
Yet he smiled at me, and I could detect no guile in his face. He spoke the servants’ language again. “Fortune was with us when you came to the king’s hall. I could sense a trace of magic about you, and now it has proven itself.”
“I have no magic,” I muttered. I watched insects buzz around the small bright flowers that grew in the mossy clearing.
“And yet you can see magic,” said the Magicworker. “The gnahali showed itself to you.”
I thought of what he had said, about how gnahali, ghost lights, only showed themselves to those who had experienced grievous violence. I bit my lip. There was no such legend among my people.
We rested on the soft moss, listening to the hum of insects. The creases at the sides of the Magicworker’s mouth spoke of laughter. Niani had removed the wooden forks holding her hair in a knot, and her black curls sprung all around her shoulders.
My own hair was still in the tight twists of many moons past. I did not like to think about it. I touched it as little as I could. Tuar, you have your mother’s tight-coiled black hair, that’s how it had started. You have your mother’s deep brown eyes, your mother’s full lips.
I closed my eyes, took deep, slow breaths until my thoughts slowed. I could not show my past to these two fellow travellers. They’d despise me. They would take me back to my father; and I would turn into my mother’s ghost.
On some level I knew my thoughts were irrational. But such is the way of thoughts. Unbidden, they rise up and can engulf a whole mind. Just like a ghost light can fill a broken soul with wanderlust.
“It was a gnahali that led me to your king’s halls,” I said, in a half-whisper, unthinking. Then I stiffened, realising I had let something out that I hadn’t meant to. A stone sank in my heart.
The Magicworker and Niani shared a glance and looked at me, then. Their silence was careful, fragile. In it was an invitation.
“I had heard tell of such things, but I was sure they were a myth. But a woman running…running for her life in the forest is open to all manner of mind-delusion. The gnahali confused me, compelled me. I don’t know why it led me to your king’s walls. Perhaps they have no purpose except to lead people astray, as they say in the stories of my people. But both these times I’ve seen one, they’ve led me somewhere.” I paused and looked up at the two intertwined trees, carefully avoiding the two pairs of eyes watching me. “Although I will admit this is less of a somewhere than the previous was.”
Niani gave a startled laugh. The web of silence had broken. I dared a glance at her, and found strange comfort in her eyes. A smile crept on my face like a gift.
“It’s a fraught power, to see the spirits of the forest,” said the Magicworker. “Even I can’t summon them, for all that I can coax the invisible forces of the world to follow my vision.” He looked at me. “That’s the essence of what is called magic.”
We began to set up camp. Neither of them asked me why I had run for my life, why I was able to see ghost lights. The past was mine alone, my heavy burden which I did not need to disclose unwillingly. In their silence I felt comforted. The steady hum of the clearing seemed to clear my head, not confuse it. I was safe here.
It was strange that I should feel so alive with two people I had met less than a moon-cycle previously. And yet it was so. I felt no calling to return to the fire-pits of the king’s compound, to the busy kitchens and heat of the cooking-pots. I wished we could stay in the wild forest forever.
◊ ◊ ◊
We spent many days in the clearing with its hum. The Magicworker spent most of his time next to the two trees. He had all manner of implement and scroll, dragged along on our journey by strong Niani. Sometimes he would ask her to help, and she would stand next to him, humming an atonal melody. At other times she would help by crafting various implements out of wood, strange crooked objects that I could make no sense of. Magicworker and assistant alike were distracted by the tree-twins, which had begun to emit a hum of their own, or so I fancied when I walked close to them.
Magic seemed a confusing and complicated discipline. Niani, who had been the Magicworker’s assistant for several years, and bodyguard for even more, was versed in the basic principles of the science, but it was a deep, unfamiliar well for me, especially when explained in a language I still did not speak with ease.
I was not stupid, though. I knew why we were there in the clearing of moss and ferns, why we had spent day upon day there. The Magicworker was working with the strong magical forces of this part of the forest. He was channelling them into the entwined trees.
“This gate,” he said, with a shy smile that hid his pride, “will lead to the southern gate, if all goes well.” His goal was to coax the already existing magical links in the fabric of the world, so that people might one day walk through its seams and travel with ease.
I felt useless, but reminded myself that we wouldn’t have found the clearing if it wasn’t for my spirit-vision and the ghost light. And since there was space, and no one to chastise me, I took to practising the movements my bodyguard Jama had taught me: the beautiful, flowing movements of the fighting technique used among my people. In my mindless panic to flee my father’s hall, in the confines of the Eri king’s compound, I had almost forgotten this skill. But now, under the sun’s blaze, on the soft moss, I went through the seven sets of movement and felt my body rejoicing as I did.
Niani and the Magicworker concentrated on their work and let me alone while I practised. But one day, after I had completed the seventh set in a perfect sweep of arms and placement of feet, the Magicworker came up to me. I was dishevelled and sweaty after my long practice.
“These movements,” he said, “they look like a dance.”
I smiled; it was easier again to smile. “They are a dance,” I said, “a killing dance. I could disarm a man within five movements if I were better trained.”
Curiosity sparked in his dark eyes, but still, he didn’t ask about my past. I felt a swell of gratitude.
Niani had been watching my movements with a professional eye. “Come,” she said, pulling her coiled hair into a twist. “Disarm me.”
My breath was cut short. My practice had made my body feel like my own again. My old nimbleness was returning. Still, to disarm Niani would mean to touch her bare skin, her strong arms. To touch another body.
“Well,” she said, “after such a boast you can’t just stand there.” She flashed me a teasing grin.
I almost froze. The look in my eyes must have startled her, for she relaxed her fighting stance and frowned. “I’m only joking, Dayi. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Oh, it frustrated me, that a person I liked was asking me for a friendly fight, and yet my body was frozen, soles tingling with the need for flight. My father had taken so much from me! No. He wasn’t going to take all human touch from me. I felt I was jumping headlong into a chasm, but with a shout I broke my spell of fear and moved.
Niani was ready at once. I moved into the fight with the fluidity of the first set and made first contact – arm against arm. She fought so differently from my bodyguards that I was unsettled at first. But my body was ready before my mind was, and before I could be shocked by how she drew me towards her in a wrestling hug, I was feinting, spiralling, pivoting away.
It was not over in five movements. Niani fought well – as indeed she should, to be entrusted as bodyguard for the Magicworker – and I was out of practice. The sun beat down hot and bold, and the Magicworker stood aside and chuckled as he watched us sweat and kick.
In the end, we both tripped over a surprise root that I was sure had not been there earlier. Niani and I fell to the soft ground, breathless, legs entwined. I didn’t flinch from her touch.
“M’lord!” she said to the Magicworker. “You tricked that root into rising!”
How he managed to look devious and utterly innocent at the same time was beyond me. His chuckle gave him away, though. “Your expressions are worth it.”
Niani and I glanced at each other and then at him. Suddenly, all three of us were laughing. We laughed till my belly ached from it. I was caught with happiness, such a fragile happiness that I was afraid I’d break it with a single wrong breath. I could not remember the last time I had laughed so.
Oh, I had grown bold.
“I’m going for a wash,” I said. The sweat was running down my skin.
“I’ll come with you,” said Niani.
I had come far, yes, but I could not bear to have someone near me in nakedness. “I…can I go alone? You can go first if you like.”
Her eyes were soft. She was close, so close next to me. I felt the ghost of her touch on my hot skin like a whiplash.
“You go.” Her voice was gentle.
Without a word, I gathered my things and went to the sluggishly flowing stream nearby. Daring, I went further, up to the pool we had found. There was no one else in this part of the forest. Only the animals, and we had seen no dangerous beasts. I would be safe.
But the pool was a mirror.
I had confronted a fear today. I had touched Niani, and it had been the cleansing touch of the fight. Surely I could confront another fear, too.
The pool’s water was warm, as everything was in this season. I kept my eyes closed at first, concentrated on scrubbing myself clean of sweat and fear, layer by layer. I ran a hand from my jaw down my left arm, shivering at my own touch. And yet it felt good to touch, to gift myself with gentleness as I had not done for a long time.
Carefully, I took my hair down from its knot. It fell in tangled twists to my shoulders. I gritted my teeth and slowly, slowly began to untwist. I glanced at my reflection in the water. My hair was a wild mass. My eyes, wavering in the water, looked startled.
I saw my dead mother in myself. The mother who everyone said I looked like. The mother whom my father had loved too much.
I had hated her memory for so many years. I wasn’t sure I was willing to do that any more. It was not she who had caused me misery, except by dying; and that, of course, was not of her own will. It was my father I should hate. And I did. Hatred spun around me like a dark cloud. But perhaps I could let that hatred go, too. I would never see him again, after all.
All I could do was learn to live in this body.
Untangling my hair took forever, and I cried with frustration while I pulled gently at the knots. But eventually I had freed it enough that I could wash it. I dried myself off and pulled on my mossy tunic again. My hair I let hang on my shoulders, a heavy mass of coils. I would twist it later, but for now, it was my hair, mine, and it would be free. Like I was.
I was lost in my thoughts. Niani’s voice when I entered the clearing brought me back into the world.
“Dayi! Your hair!”
I raised a hand defensively to my coils. No one had ever commented on my hair other than to say that it was just like my mother’s.
Niani looked me in the eyes with a strange smile. “It’s beautiful.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Heavy footsteps rushed through my dreams, thundered through the deep places of the earth. The jingle of armour, the silver bells used by courtsmen. My father’s men! Their calls echoed through the forest as they crashed through the undergrowth.
I came awake sweating in the morning heat, breath unsteady, tears flowing down my cheeks. I was shocked at the tears; I had not cried since before I left my father’s house. I wiped them away quickly before Niani or the Magicworker noticed them. But I needn’t have worried. They were still asleep, although he slept lightly, as if nervous. And no wonder, for it was the day that we were to test the workings of his magic.
I gathered myself. I listened sharply, but there were no sounds apart from the birds and rustling of small forest animals. The clearing hummed steadily beneath it all. I lay down again and pressed my ear against the mossy ground. But it told me nothing. The moss and the bare earth beneath it carried no echo of soldiers.
Still, I was left with an uneasiness that I couldn’t shake even when Niani and the Magicworker awoke and we ate a meagre breakfast. Our supplies were running low. Even if it wasn’t time to test the experiment, soon we would have to set off to the Eri king’s halls. Back to the confines of his walls, to my slavery. For I realised I had not been paid for my work there. It had not occurred to me before, for I had seen myself as paying them back for the kindness they had done me in taking me in, a foreigner in their land.
Defiance rose within me. Surely this world could not be comprised only of this land, and of my father’s land? There had to be other places, other countries in the depths of the forest, perhaps even beyond it.
I would not go back to the life of servitude that I had embraced in order to be free of a life of fear.
◊ ◊ ◊
Everything was ready for the final test. Niani and I stood by the gateway formed by the intertwined trees. The Magicworker was convinced this gateway could be used to transport people to the other side, a place three weeks’ travel away from where we were. Still, it seemed incredible to me. I had witnessed the blooming of his magic when he muttered words and wove his spells. But that he could actually have steered the growth of such a gateway?
The sun blazed bright, yet the shadow of trees lingered deeper in the forest, threatening. My dream had clearly unsettled me more than I’d thought. Yet I felt that the hum in the clearing was also more jagged than it usually was. What was happening? Was it just the magic?
For the Magicworker was standing in front of Niani and myself, weaving the spell that he hoped would bring to life the gate formed of the two gnarled trees. With a gasp, I felt the power gathering like the noon sun beating down.
Before my eyes, the space between the entwined trees began to glow. A mute glow, a gentle glow at first, as the Magicworker muttered. His voice grew in strength; his dark forehead was dripping with sweat.
Through the arch formed by the trees, I had gazed into the forest that lay beyond. Now, a different forest loomed between the two trunks. I could hardly breathe. A gentle glow still lay on the trees themselves – the gate. But now, we were looking through them into a different view: not a clearing, but a dense mass of ferns and flowering plants.
“It worked,” Niani said in an awed voice. Her hand came to clutch mine. I held on tight, forgetting to be afraid of her touch, unnerved by the strangeness of it all.
The Magicworker turned to us. A huge grin was on his face, and his hair was curling in tighter spirals due to the moisture he had gathered all over his body. But in spite of his triumph, he was careful, had the precautions of a knowledge-seeker.
“The gate won’t be open long,” he said. “I can’t hold it open for more than a few moments. Now is the time to test it.”
His voice echoed into a silence that snapped violently. I heard running, I heard shouts, I heard the hooves of a wild animal nearing the clearing.
“What’s wrong, Dayi?” asked Niani. Her hand was still clasped in mine.
“Do you hear it?” I wished I were dreaming in daylight. I wanted the pounding steps and snapping undergrowth to be a malicious illusion.
“People,” said Niani, and shattered my hopes. For now I could hear the jingling of armour, and I could hear shouts.
Shouts in a language I could understand. Shouts in the language my mother had sung me to sleep with.
The language my father had abused me with.
“We have to hide,” I said, stumbling over my words in the language I had but newly learnt. “Quickly!”
Niani glanced at the Magicworker. Something silent passed between them.
“All right,” said Niani. “It sounds like a dozen or so people. Those ferns over there, near the gate – we’ll lie there until we’ve seen what’s what.”
“Our things!” I was breathless, terrified. Our belongings were strewn around our camp, easy to find, prompting a search over the whole clearing.
The Magicworker frowned. “Gather what you can and hide,” he said. “I’ll take care of the rest.”
Frantically, I gathered up as much as I could carry, and hurried to the tall ferns that stood near the forest edge, by the great roots of the tree-gate. I huddled underneath them. Niani came to join me, several bundles in her hands.
I was shaking. I wanted the Magicworker to do it quickly, whatever he was doing. He hummed, he muttered, and slowly I saw the rest of our belongings fade into the grass. I could see them if I concentrated, but they would not be visible to anyone who didn’t look close.
“Come on!” said Niani in a low, urgent voice. “They’re almost here.”
At the last moment, the Magicworker flung himself into the ferns next to us. We were hidden from prying eyes – as long as those eyes did not think to look too close.
A small white-tailed deer sped into the clearing. Arrows flew from the woods, and moments later, the creature was shot dead. Its hunters came into the clearing.
They were my father’s men.
Terror clung to me like a second skin. I could not understand why they were this far from his court. I had never thought the chase would persist so long, or so far.
Yet a moment later sense caught up to me, and I understood that they could not be searching for me any more. My father must have given me up for dead. These men were but a hunting party for the king, straying far from his lands, so far that they might not have realised they were in another country.
Beside me, Niani had loosened the dagger at her belt; little good that would do her against so many. Silently I cursed our rotten luck: the hunters would surely stop in the clearing to skin their catch at least. I prayed they would not notice the tree-gate’s glow and the strange view through it.
Then my father strode into the clearing, and I came close to heaving up the contents of my breakfast. What was he doing with the hunting party, so far from his lands? Suddenly I felt naked. The ferns could do nothing to hide me. He would sense I was here, somehow. He would take me back home and touch me again.
Niani sensed me shuddering beside her. She could not understand the reason for my terror, of course. But she put a hand around my shoulder as we crouched beneath the ferns. Her touch could have made me skittish. Instead, it felt comforting. I leaned against her. I felt more grounded in my self despite seeing my father there, so close.
He looked the same: the imperious tilt of his mouth, his large, looming frame.
“We shall rest here,” he said to his men, and I gave a soft sigh of horror. They were not going to just skin the deer and ride past.
Niani and the Magicworker had shifted beside me, their faces blank as they listened to the language unfamiliar to them. I noticed the Magicworker give me a shrewd look as he saw my obvious shock at the announcement. But they dared not speak, for the king’s men were now making camp.
“A fire pit, my lord,” said one of the soldiers to my father, “still smoking. Someone else was here just a short while ago.”
“One of the savages of these lands, no doubt,” said my father. “These must be their hunting grounds. This bodes well for us. Perhaps there are bigger creatures to hunt, too.” He spared their catch a brief glance and surveyed the rest of the clearing. I was glad the Magicworker’s spell of concealment on the rest of our items was still working, although he was labouring hard to keep it that way, sweat pushing through his skin.
“Search this place. They may still be close by.”
At my father’s words, I could not suppress a gasp of fear. Niani and the Magicworker gave me furious glances and pulled me down, but I was frantic.
A couple of soldiers came close to the ferns. I could smell the leather and metal of their armour and the reek of days-long sweat. They would find us. The Magicworker could not keep up three spells at once.
When the first soldier gave a cry of “My lord! There are people here!” we were lost. Panicking, I stumbled to my feet, pulling the Magicworker and Niani along with me.
The world halted. The soldiers stood, baffled, staring as their princess and two foreigners emerged from the green ferns. The clearing’s magic hum seemed urgent, as if the very earth sensed my distress.
All I could focus on was my father. I watched him recognise me in a moment that felt like an agonising eternity. The fury grew on his face, coupled with honest surprise.
“You’re alive.” His voice was gentle. It was always gentle when he talked to me. He sounded as if he were happy that I was still alive – oh, and he probably was. If I was alive, he could take me back and keep me forever. He could finish what he had begun.
I couldn’t allow that. I had to grasp at the fraying strands of freedom that I held clutched in my hands.
“Seize her!” said my father.
My head was spinning. I was shaking with fear. But I would rather die than be caught like a rabbit in a trap.
“Follow me!” I yelled in the language of the Eri.
Dumbfounded by this situation whose gravity they couldn’t understand, my two companions nonetheless ran alongside me. My plan was a last desperate struggle for freedom, for I knew that even with magic and Niani’s skills, and my lingering defensive arts, we could not win a fight against my father and his men.
When he understood where we were running, the Magicworker yelled: “We can’t! It isn’t safe!”
He flinched at the look I gave him. “This isn’t safe,” I snapped. And indeed, he and Niani were both embroiled in it now, for my father’s men were coming at us fast. We fought our way from the ferns to the tree-gate. I kicked and punched more fiercely than I had ever done in all my training, for my life and freedom depended on it. Niani used her dagger with cold precision. The Magicworker just ran and dodged, for all his strength was concentrated on keeping the gate open.
I hesitated the smallest moment before the tree-gate. I looked into the other forest, its deeper shades. I glanced back, saw my father running towards us. Niani was grappling with one of his soldiers. I took one last look at the man I had hoped never to see again.
I grabbed Niani and the Magicworker by their arms, and ran through the opening between the trees.
◊ ◊ ◊
A dizzying blur clouded my eyesight, and my stomach lurched.
Then all was still, until the world exploded into movement again. We were no longer in the clearing. We had made it to the other side.
“Close the gate!” yelled Niani. I realised that while we had indeed passed through the gate to somewhere else, the soldiers had noticed that something was going on, and were coming after us. Niani was still fighting the one she’d been grappling with on the other side. One of my father’s personal bodyguards was coming at me. I struggled desperately, trying to go through the seven movements. But the dance was not smooth. I could hear shouts. I could see my father coming closer. Soon he would be through the gate.
The wavering glow disappeared. There was nothing but this new forest, a dark, dense area that I barely had time to notice because I was fighting for my life. I was being crushed by the weight of the soldier who had lunged at me. I hit him hard in the groin with my knee. Not one of the preferred tactics of the discipline, but survival has no room for elegance.
I heard a strangled cry, and then Niani was there, slashing with her knife. The man fighting me was thrown off, and with a sickening thud of metal in flesh, Niani stabbed him in the heart.
The forest was silent around us. It was as if we had entered a ghost realm. Bone-aching, I sat up and looked around me.
Niani was standing there next to me, breath heavy, the bloody knife in her hand. Two dead men lay beside her on the forest floor. My father’s soldiers, caught in this struggle.
The Magicworker was sprawled on the ground a little way from me, staring in wonder at the tree-gate that lay before him. These were strong trees, too, but younger than the ones we had found in the clearing.
“It worked,” he said. “It is possible for humans to travel through the gate.” Then he turned to look at me, sudden steel in his voice. “Why did you do that? Can you even imagine the risk…”
I looked away. “I’m sorry for putting your life and Niani’s into danger,” I said. “But there was no other way. They were attacking us.”
He pursed his lips after a while and nodded.
Niani was staring at the bodies. I got up and went to her, legs still shaking. “I’m sorry you had to do that,” I said. I could not look directly at the dead bodies, for the sight made me feel another lurch of sickness. I was so very sorry. And even sorrier that my father still lived.
“I’m a bodyguard,” Niani said. “It’s what I do.” She gave me a wan smile. “Not that it’s ever fun.”
There was silence. I could feel Niani’s unspoken questions and the Magicworker’s wordless wondering fill up the space between us. I was still undone by having seen my father, heard his voice. But I could gather the shreds of myself again. It was easier now, after my many moons of hard-working safety in the Eri king’s court, after our journey in the forest. I clenched my fists so tight it hurt. My jaw was stiff. I breathed in and out several times, opening my mouth to free the tension.
I had to tell them. They had earned it beyond measure, with their friendship, their willingness to follow my sudden order, their defence against my father’s men.
“Please,” I said. “Let’s sit down.”
The moss here was soft and welcoming. Niani and the Magicworker gathered beside me. The dead men in the thicket of ferns behind us were a gruesome reminder of how barely we had escaped. My eyes were firmly on the moss at my feet. It seemed wondrous to me that the world should contain things so vibrantly green, so fearlessly alive.
“That man in the clearing, their leader. He’s the king of the land I come from.” I paused. The words of their language felt strange in my mouth again, like stones rounded by river water. “He is my father.”
Strange it felt, and terrifying beyond belief, to be telling the true story of myself to my companions after such a long silence. I didn’t tell them everything; I couldn’t. Perhaps I never would, and the memories would remain locked up in my soul forever. But some things I could tell.
“He went mad in his chase of my mother’s spirit. He…he touched me, as a man touches his wife.”
I closed my eyes, so as not to witness the pity in their faces. But when I opened my eyes, I saw not pity, but horrified understanding. Niani had reached out for me, but her hand sank like a stone in the distance between us.
I raised my head, some pride remaining. “I couldn’t endure it. I escaped, and they chased me. I was lost in the forest when I saw a gnahali for the first time.” That ghost light had truly saved me. “It led me to your king’s walls. The rest you know.”
The silence that followed was heavier than I could bear. But what could they say, after hearing such a tale?
“The forest-spirits must be in your favour, Dayi,” said the Magicworker at last, in a quiet, careful voice. “For this is the first time a tree-gate has fully opened to me.”
“You did things differently this time, though, yes?” I asked. I was relieved to speak of something else.
“I refined my experiments,” he agreed. “But that clearing also bore the most powerful traces of natural magic that I’ve ever encountered. To think we might not have reached it but for you and the gnahali… I’m grateful to you, Dayi.”
The name, Moss-tunic, pricked at me somehow, like an ill-fitting sandal. “And I’m grateful to you, lord Magicworker, and to Niani. I can’t even say how much. You…” I spoke past the lump in my throat. “You saved me.”
“As if we could’ve done anything else!” said Niani. Her eyes on me were dark and worried. It shivered my heart, that neither of them had changed their behaviour now they knew I was the daughter of a king.
The Magicworker gave a cough. “I know you have known me only as the Magicworker,” he said. “It is the custom for Magicworkers to abandon their names when they practise the science of magic in earnest. But to you, Dayi, I will say now that my birth-name is Kagna.”
I bowed my head, mindful of the honour he’d given me. I noted that Niani had marked no surprise at his true name. So she had known it already.
The Magicworker – Kagna – got up and paced towards the trees that formed the gate on this side. He put a hand on the bark and muttered a few words. I felt a soft tremor of magic run through the earth in response.
“There. That was the last of it,” he said, passing a hand over his face. “The gates must be thanked, you see. We’re using the earth’s magic for this, and we must thank the trees that see it done.”
In my heart, I thanked the earth and all the forest-spirits for my second escape. “How far are we from the Eri compound now?”
“A week’s journey or so,” said Kagna. “It will be rough going, with only the few supplies we carried on our backs during our crossing.”
I took a deep breath. I saw the walls closing in on me when I thought of returning with them to the Eri king’s halls. I scrambled to my feet and took a few steps away, peering into the forest. The trees were ancient and towering in this part of the woods.
“I can’t come with you,” I said. “I know the king ordered you to bring me back for fear I’d reveal his secrets. Yet what secrets do I know here? I don’t know where we are. I’m lost. And I want it to stay that way. I’ll go on from here. No one will know I’ve visited the Eri lands. I’ll continue further into the forest. I’ll let the gnahali lead me. I’ll learn new languages when I come across them.”
I turned. Kagna did not look surprised. If anything, he looked pleased. “I thought as much. Yes, Dayi. You should have freedom.”
I’d been prepared to fight if I had to. I was disarmed by the kindness in his voice.
“You can’t go alone into the woods!” said Niani, forehead creased in a frown. “You have little experience of the forest’s dangers.”
“I can protect myself,” I said. My mind pushed moments at me when I had not been able to protect myself, not from my father. The seven movements had not helped me then. But I pushed that back. I was a different person now.
Niani hung her head and looked thoughtful.
“My dears,” said Kagna. He got to his feet and walked to me, drawing Niani close to his side. He raised an arm and met my eyes with a question. Hesitantly, I got up and leaned into his touch. We stood there, all three, encircled by him.
“You two should go into the forest wilds together.”
Niani and I looked up sharply, first at him and then at each other. “You’d let us go, both of us?” said Niani.
“Yes,” said Kagna. “I may be in the Eri king’s employ, but I’m my own master. And so should you two be.”
“But how will you explain it to the king?” I asked. I did not want him to be punished for our sakes.
To my surprise, he laughed. “I’ll spin a story of how the experiment worked, but the dreadful magic currents severed the souls from my servants’ bodies while I was the only one to remain anchored in my self. Such things have been known to happen when magic goes wrong.”
My eyes were wide. “They have?” I had not known what I’d risked when I plunged us through the gate.
He nodded. “So it’s decided. You two will go together, if you wish it.”
I glanced at Niani, suddenly shy. “Will you join me in the wilderness, as long as we wish for each other’s company? Would you leave your life as bodyguard? Would you leave the study of magic?”
She smiled like a fern unfurling. “Yes.”
My heart was filled with a giddiness that frightened me. That these two would take risks for me – that Niani wanted to travel with me.
It was quick work to divide our belongings between us. Kagna would get by with the help of his magic, he said; and Niani was confident in the deep woods, for she had been born in a small village near the Eri compound, and was used to woodsfaring.
Burying the bodies of my father’s men was far slower work, and wretched. But at last they were under the moss. I wished them safe passage in the other worlds and that their next lives might be more peaceful.
At last it was time for the farewell.
“Can’t you come with us?” I asked. I didn’t want to let him go.
Kagna shook his head, eyes shining wet. “I can’t. My life’s work, my science is all at the Eri king’s court. I must go back. But I’ll miss you, Dayi.”
I laid my hand on his shoulder, trembling at the voluntary touch. He leant close to me, and I did not flinch. “I’ll miss you too.” My throat was tight.
As Niani and I stood side by side, ready to leave, I knew there was one final thing I had to tell them. Moss-tunic I was, but a true part of me was in what my mother had given me. Perhaps I could finally be free from the burden laid on me by my father. Perhaps I could own my name without shame.
“There’s something I want to tell you.” I could feel Kagna and Niani’s eyes on me, and did not feel discomfited by their gaze. I took a deep breath.
“My birth-name is Tuar.”
– END –