Excerpt from Crown of Stars Vol. 6, In the Ruins
By Kate Elliott
Feather Cloak was fertile, the only pregnant woman left among her people. Indeed, she was the only woman living who had quickened more than once. Therefore, she presided over the council of tribes because she had power the others did not possess, power that had been draining from the land during their exile. No one could explain this slow leaching but they knew it presaged the death of both land and people. If anyone could save them, it must be the one in whom power still resided long after it had departed from the rest.
The Eagle Seat had yielded to her. In truth, it was now the only place she rested easily. Her older child was almost an adult in aspect and learning, but in the days when he had grown within her, he had not waxed so large. It seemed she would harvest a giant’s spawn, although she happened to know that the sire of her budding child was Rain, who was no smaller or larger than any other man. He was a gentle soul of medium build, kind, good-natured, a hard worker with clever hands, a skill for flint-knapping, and a well-omened name, and for all these reasons a much better choice for a father than arrogant warriors like Cat Mask and Lizard Mask who liked to shake their spears and strut before the women.
As they were doing now.
“We must gather in one place, farther inland where we’ll be protected, and ready ourselves! Then we can act at once, and in numbers. We can strike before our enemy expects us!”
“Better to station ourselves in smaller groups, you fool! Spread out around the countryside. If one group is taken by surprise the others will be able to harry the enemy and regroup when it is safe.”
“If the enemy strikes first, if the enemy passes the White Road and sets foot in our country, we are lost!” Cat Mask pounded the haft of the speaking staff repeatedly into the dirt to emphasize his point, as if his voice wasn’t loud enough!
Lizard Mask had half a head of height over Cat Mask. He used it now, puffing up his chest and jutting out his chin, as he curled a hand around the haft, above Cat Mask’s hand. “If the enemy invades, how can we know where he will cross? If we’re all in one place, we’ll lose mobility. We’ll lumber along as slowly as your mind works!”
“Feh! Your wish to be safe has made you frightened. We must be bold!”
“We must be cautious but clever, the thorn in their side.”
“The arrow in their heart! One blow to cripple them, not a frenzy of meaningless stings that will only anger them but do no lasting damage.”
The women were seated around the cavernous council chamber, watching the two young warriors stamping and blowing in the center. The older women seemed amused and indulgent, while the younger women had settled into expressions of disgust or intent interest depending on their liking for belligerent male posturing. The older men stood with crossed arms and resigned expressions as they waited for the storm to die down; they had blustered in like manner in their own day and knew better than to intervene.
“A swarm of bees may bring down a wolf who angers them and disturbs their hive.”
“A wolf may outrun them and stalk back at night when they sleep to rip their refuge to shreds for other animals to mangle and devour!”
Because men had the floor, it wasn’t the place of women to speak, but Feather Cloak was not surprised when The Impatient One - Uapeani-kazonkansi-a-lari, daughter of Eldest Uncle - laughed.
“What fine phrases these are!” she cried. “Shall we acclaim the one who pierces us with the finest poetry?”
The two men flushed red. Faced with her mockery, they shifted their stances to join against her. In years past, The Impatient One had slept with both of them, and cast both aside, and whatever jealousy they nurtured each toward the other measured less than their resentment of her indifference.
“You argue over war,” she went on, “but force of arms cannot win this battle.”
“We must fight!” declared Cat Mask.
“Whether we choose to mass our forces or disperse them, we must be ready to fight,” agreed Lizard Mask.
She snorted. “They are many and we are few. Beyond that, humankind are only one of the dangers we face. We may yet suffer grievous harm when the day comes - close now!”
As if to emphasize her point in the same way Cat Mask had rapped his spear against the ground, the land beneath shuddered. The vibration resembled a temblor but was instead the judder of the land as it called out like to like, seeking its home through the waves of aether that surrounded it. It shook right through Feather Cloak’s body. Her womb clenched and relaxed in harmony with that rhythm. She wiped her brow with the back of a hand, knowing her time was close, just as the day they had so long awaited was close.
What was torn asunder would come back to its resting place, and the Ashioi - cursed and exiled - would come home.
Many spoke, all at once, now that The Impatient One had spoken out of turn. Peace. War. Appeasement. Negotiation. Each view had its adherents, but those who clamored for war shouted loudest.
“I will speak,” Feather Cloak said, and the rest - even The Impatient One - quieted. “Listen well. If we do not speak with one voice, we will surely perish. We no longer have leisure to argue. A decision must be made, so I will make it. Let it be done in this way: Let the people be gathered inland, where they may hope for the most safety, but let them assemble in thirteen groups each apart from the others so that if one falls into danger the others may yet escape. Cat Mask, you will split our warriors into two groups. The larger group will remain with you at a place of your choosing, where you can move and fight swiftly. Lizard Mask, you will order the rest into small groups that can patrol the borderlands to warn the rest of us if any hostile force passes our borders. The council will disperse with the others. I will remain here until the storm passes. White Feather will act as my midwife. For the rest, we must prepare to defend ourselves, but only after the storm can we know how we are situated and how many of us have survived. We will assemble again at that time to choose our course of action. I have spoken. Let none dispute my words.”
She had only once before invoked her right to make a unilateral decision. No wise leader did so often. She sighed, doubly burdened, as the council acquiesced. Most left swiftly to carry out her orders. A few tarried, arguing in soft voices that nevertheless echoed and reechoed in the cavern. Only Eldest Uncle remained silent where he sat, cross-legged, on the second terrace.
“You have offered no opinion, Uncle,” she said.
“He has no opinion,” replied his daughter, turning away from her conversation with her companion, White Feather, who like her was harsh but strong. “He has fallen in love with his grandson’s naked mate, whom all men desire because she burns with the fire of the upper spheres.”
Eldest Uncle sighed.
“Is this true?” asked Feather Cloak. “I admit I was surprised when you brought her before the council. She is dangerous, and in the way of such dangerous things, attractive and bright.”
“She is young, and wanted teaching. If you women can think of nothing but sex, that is not my fault.”
“My father and my son - both enslaved to her! What do you say, Feather Cloak?”
“I banished her, seeing what she was. Beyond the danger she poses to every earthly creature because of what she is, I saw no harm in her.”
“You are a fool!”
Feather Cloak smiled, clasping her hands over her huge abdomen. “That may be. And maybe you are jealous.”
Eldest Uncle chuckled.
The Impatient One glared.
“But I sit in the Eagle Seat. If you dispute my right to take this place, you will have to prove yourself more worthy than I am.”
Like every adult among her people, Feather Cloak could use a bow and had learned to defend herself with knife and staff, but The Impatient One had relished the arts of war in which all adolescents trained. She was physically strong, with powerful limbs and a martial grace that could be used to protect, or to threaten - as she did now, tense and poised, a warrior ready to cast a spear at her enemy.
“I have walked the spheres! Do not mock my power.”
“I do not mock you, cousin. But I do not fear you either. Power is not wisdom. It is only power. Cat Mask and his warriors cannot protect us if he makes rash choices. We are weakened by our exile. We do not know what we may yet suffer. I counsel caution and readiness. You yourself spoke against using force of arms.”
“Only because they are many, and we are few. We must strike swiftly with other means. The greatest and cruelest of their warriors can be overcome by sorcery. I have defeated even the wild beasts among them who would have torn me limb from limb.”
“Beware,” said Eldest Uncle quietly. “We have seen how much greater is suffering when sorcery is used for harm.”
“You think we should surrender!”
“Do I? We must seek peace.”
“Peace is surrender! Humankind will never offer us peace.”
“How can you know this, daughter?”
“I know them better than you do! I have lived among them. I bore a child to one of them.” She looked defiantly at Feather Cloak. “They are not like us. They will never make peace with us. My son was raised as an outcast among them, and even so they seduced him to their ways.”
“Better to have raised him in our ways,” said Eldest Uncle, “instead of abandoning him there.”
“So you would say! But it was decided to try the course of appeasement by birthing a child who would mix their blood and ours. That plan has failed!”
“Do you believe otherwise? How can you know? You have not walked on Earth since the old days - and the old days are forgotten by humankind. They recall us only in stories, as an ancient enemy long banished and defeated. Or is it the memory of the Bright One that blinds you, so that you do not wish to war against them?”
“It is ill mannered for daughter to speak so disrespectfully to her own sire,” commented Feather Cloak. “Your words may carry truth, but your behavior gives us cause to doubt you.”
“You are fools!” The Impatient One snapped her fingers, and one of the young warriors, loitering by the passageway that led out of the cavern, came to attention. “Still, it is possible - just possible - if they are not dead but only caught between the worlds. . . .” She grinned, leaped up the steps, and vanished into the darkness, the young man at her heels.
“Who is dead?” asked White Feather.
“We are caught between the worlds,” said the elderly woman known as Green Skirt. “What mischief is she up to?”
“She’ll try to get pregnant again,” said White Feather. “She’ll want the Eagle Seat. She’ll wrest it from you, if she can.”
Feather Cloak had weathered many trials in her life; they all had, who lived in exile. She smiled, feeling the familiar tug of weariness at her heart, leavened only by a memory of laughter she had once shared with The Impatient One when they were girls together. “In the old days,” she said as the last of her council gathered around her, “we did not acclaim a leader solely on her fertility. It is a shame it has come to this.” She patted her belly. Muscles tightened under her hand. The skin rippled as the child within rolled like one of the merfolk underwater.
“How has the world changed?” she asked the others, marking each one with her gaze: Eldest Uncle, Green Skirt, the old warrior Skull Earrings, and White Feather, who would act as midwife. These were the ones she trusted most, because they were honest even and particularly when they did not agree. They were her spring, winter, autumn, and summer. “We do not know what we will find when we return to Earth, for none among us has walked in the other land as it is now - except The Impatient One.”
“Uapeani-kazonkansi-a-lari walked the spheres,” said White Feather. “She risked her life so that she could learn what was necessary to cross over the aether and back onto Earth. We should not dismiss her words so lightly, just because she does not agree with her father.”
Eldest Uncle chuckled.
Green Skirt had an older woman’s distaste for nonsense. She lifted her chin sharply to show she disagreed. “That she refuses to listen to her elders is precisely what makes her opinion suspect. She is rash.”
Skull Earrings crossed his arms. He had once been a bold, impetuous, impatient warrior like Cat Mask, but age, hunger, and despair had worn him down. He was like ancient gold, burnished to a soft gleam. “First let us survive what is coming. We do not know what to expect, except what the Bright One told us - that our old enemies live again and seek to exile us forevermore. If we survive, then we can send scouts to survey the lay of the land. If we do not survive, if we are cast adrift a second time, then we will certainly die. What can we do?”
“We can do nothing,” said Eldest Uncle, “except take shelter and hope for the storm’s winds to spare us.”
“There must be something we can do!” cried White Feather. “Are we goats, to be herded at the shepherds’s whim and slaughtered when it is time for meat?”
“Now - right now - we are helpless,” said Eldest Uncle. “There is no shame in accepting this as truth, since it is so. I agree with my nephew.” He gestured toward Skull Earrings.
The other man laughed. “After so many years, it is good we agree at last, uncle!”
The old man smiled, but Feather Cloak saw that the gesture came only from the head, not his heart. “I will wait beside the clearing where the burning stone appears.”
“That is on the edge of the land,” protested Feather Cloak. “The tides may wash over you. You will be at risk.”
“As you are here, Feather Cloak.”
“I cannot leave the Eagle Seat. I like you close at hand. It makes me feel more at peace.”
He shrugged, knowing she was right, knowing that as leader she had no peace. The weight of the Eagle Seat was as heavy a burden as pregnancy. “Nevertheless, I must wait there, in case-”
White Feather snorted. “In case the Bright One reappears? Perhaps your daughter speaks the truth, uncle. You have a young man’s mind in an old man’s body.”
“That never changes!” he retorted, but he was not offended by her statement. The others laughed. “I am eldest. I will do as I wish in this. I will see what I will see, and if the tides overwhelm me, so be it.”
A contraction gripped Feather Cloak’s womb, and as if in echo the earth trembled and shook on and on until she found herself breathing hard, hands clutching the eagle’s wings.
White Feather knelt beside her. “You are close.” She beckoned to Green Skirt, who nodded and hurried to the door to give a stream of directions to one of the warriors waiting there, a young woman wearing a fox mask. The girl ran out to fetch water while White Feather emptied coals out of a hollow stick and coaxed a fire into flame. Skull Earrings fetched the birthing stool.
All this industry, and the intense grip of further contractions, distracted Feather Cloak. She had the merest impression of Eldest Uncle’s brief farewell and the pair of young warriors who followed him. When she next looked around the chamber, all three were gone.
As the contractions came hard and with increasing frequency, she began no longer to be able to distinguish the forces shaking her body and those shaking the land. So many burdens; so much exhaustion; so great a trial to be faced. She had to let it go. It was beyond her control. All she could do was endure it. All she could do, between stabs of red-hot pain, was pray to Sharatanga, She-Who-Will-Not-Have-A-Husband.
“Guide us through this birth and this death. Give us your blessing.”
Was that her voice or White Feather’s? Was it Green Skirt speaking, as the green beads and little white skull masks clicked together each time the old woman moved? Did she herself mumble words, or only grunt and groan and curse as the pains of opening came and went?
She was vaguely sensible beyond her skin of the greater skin of the cosmos, that which wrapped Earth, opening as a flower opens to receive that which now returned to it: the exiled land. Vast forces moved within the deeps. The sea waters raged on the surface and winds howled, but in the caverns far beneath, rivers of fire shifted to create a new maze of pathways.
Earth is welcoming us home.
“Hush,” said White Feather. “Hold your breath so you can push.”
“Listen to what Feather Cloak says!” objected Green Skirt. “She can see where we cannot.”
The pain of opening transformed her awareness, altering within her body as the child within pressed forward, ready to be born. It was not pain but inevitability that dragged her. Now the exiled land was drawn back to the place it had come from, where it had always belonged. Now the child would be born, because children must be born once they are begun on that journey.
Four attended her: White Feather, Skull Earrings, Green Skirt, and the fox-masked young warrior, a serious girl who glared at everyone as she ran to and fro on whatever errands they gave her.
She knew this not because she paid attention to them, but because she knew all things. The vital soul that resides in the cosmos and imbues it and all things with life, even those that may seem dead, became visible to her. She saw the vibration of all things down to their smallest particle. She saw the reach of the heavens as they expanded in an infinite curve whose unknowable horizon confounded her. The exiled land was almost drained of this soul. Ruptured from its nurturing womb, it had waned as the tide of the sacred presence had ebbed. Now the vibrant net that entangled the earth swallowed them, and as the child in her belly was thrust out from its shelter, they were dragged in to the ancient nest in whose architecture still resided a memory of their place within it.
The slippery mass of a child dropped into White Feather’s waiting hands.
She groaned, or perhaps it was the earth grinding at a register almost too low to be perceived.
“Another one!” cried Green Skirt in shock.
“Twice blessed! Twice cursed!” sang out White Feather, shoving the first infant into the waiting hands of Skull Earrings so she could catch the impatient second, now crowning.
Feather Cloak pushed as the world was born again, as the White Road burst into existence again, a ribbon so bright that it shone, as Earth exploded beyond the borders of the Ashioi land. Firestorms raged and gales seared the land. Yet all this transpired at such a remote distance from the heart of the maelstrom that her awareness of the cosmos, too, faded, and she was after all weary. So weary.
“Two girls!” said Skull Earrings, cradling the first tenderly in his arms. “The gods have favored us!”
She slid down the long road of exhaustion and fell into sleep.
North of the land lies devastation so complete that the land steams. Has their return created such a wasteland that smoke and ruin are all she sees?
No. Beyond the scar lies land touched by fire, by wind, by raging seas, by great shifts in the earth itself, by tumult, but it is not dead.
She sees now what caused the land just beyond the White Road to be engulfed by molten rock. The Bright One walks in the wasteland. She created it with the power that resides within her, the curse she received from her mother’s kin. She is naked and carries nothing except a bow layered with the magical essence of griffin bone. So bright it shines. . . .
She moaned and came awake, squinting against a light she did not recognize.
“Ah!” She shielded her eyes. “What is it?”
“He-Who-Burns!” cried Green Skirt. “That is the sun. See how his light shines!” She pointed at the roof of the cavern, where a yellow glare illuminated the spray of plant roots dangling from crumbling ridges of soil.
Skull Earrings stepped forward with White Feather beside him. “Here are your daughters,” he said, displaying the dark babies.
White Feather nodded. “So small. So perfect!”
Weeping, she kissed them. “They will never know exile. We have come home.”