Art by The Write Mann.
From the author: The sky folk live in grand tree houses in the great forest. Even as young children, they can understand the winds and soar into the sky with no need for wings. Thirteen-year-old Shya isn't like her brothers and sisters, and the tribe treats her as an invalid, a child cursed with a weak third spirit. A visit from a traveling band of fire folk brings the promise of change and hope.
"Do you want to play with us?" Rellin asked, his voice gentle and slow, as if he thought Shya might not be able to understand him. An eager wind pulled at the long white fringe dangling from his coat sleeves and pants, fanning it out behind him.
Though she would have loved to join the other children, she shook her head and looked away from the pity on his face. The branches below her were full and lush, and only a few patches of ground were visible through the gaps when the boughs danced with the weather.
"Leave her alone, Rellin," Bexa chastised, her blonde curls bouncing in a playful breeze. She was Shya's sister and protector, although all her siblings watched out for her. It was utterly humiliating that Shya's staunchest defender was two full years younger. "You know she doesn't fly well."
Shya turned her back on them, in part so she wouldn't hear the rest of the conversation, but also so she wouldn't have to see them soar easily into the sky, where a group of children waited. Unlike the birds, sky folk didn't need wings to fly.
She made slow but steady progress along the wide branch, toward the three-level tree house where she'd been born. It was a cool day, which meant she wouldn't be able to save herself if she fell, but she'd lived all of her thirteen years with the same danger. She had fallen out of trees more than once, and still, she liked heights. If she could fly, she wouldn't be afraid of going up higher than the birds did. If she could fly.
"Shya Skychild, what are you doing out there?" a woman demanded, her voice issuing through an open kitchen window. "Come in here this instant."
Shya sighed as she felt gentle breezes nudging her toward the door. "I'm coming." If her mother had her way, Shya would never leave the safety of the house. The door blew open before she could reach for the handle. She took her time hanging her coat on its peg, hoping she might be able to sneak through the kitchen without a reprimand. Her soft leather boots made no sound as she crossed the hardwood floor, and for a moment she thought she might make it.
"What were you doing out there?" her mother asked, stopping her in her tracks. "You know better than to go out onto the big branch alone."
"But mummie, I'm always careful," Shya insisted, turning toward her mother. "And the big branch doesn't sway or move like some of the others, so it's not that dangerous."
Her mother frowned. "We've been through this before, darling." She walked over and caught her daughter's face in both hands. "You aren't strong enough to be out in this weather." Her fingers absently tucked stray strands of straight blonde hair behind Shya's ears. Because she couldn't control the winds, and they rarely obliged her, her hair tangled and knotted if it grew too long. So, unlike any of her kin or clan, she wore it very short. "Why don't you go up to your room, and I'll bring you some nice hot tea."
Shya sighed again and nodded. She wished they wouldn't treat her as though she were sick. It was almost worse than those who assumed she was simple. She had pale pink skin while other sky folk wore a tan. She supposed it made her look unwell in comparison, but it was just that she spent so much time inside, or under the canopy of trees. She was as tall as others her age, and she surely wasn't wasting away.
She knew full well what was wrong with her. She'd heard the healers explain it to her parents, and it was shared in whispers throughout the village. Her third spirit was weak, and always had been. She didn't feel weak, but there was no other explanation. The third spirit was summoned during a child's naming, and it brought the magic of the folk. Shya hardly had any magic. She could barely float, much less fly, and then only on the warmest summer days when the sun was hottest. She couldn't call a breeze, and even the elders who had lost their ability to walk or climb could ride the wind.
She walked through the great room to the stairs that circled the great tree trunk at the center of the house. A hand rail had been added when she was about six, but she refused to use it. She didn't care how anxious it made her parents. She hated living like an invalid. Besides, how was she to get stronger if she didn't push herself?
So far it hadn't seemed to make a difference.
The only good fortune to come from her ailment was the privacy of her very own room. Reading had been deemed a safe activity, one of few, and Shya had turned her room into a library of sorts. She had the largest collection of scrolls in the village. Papa had built yet another shelf to hold the inevitable new additions she would acquire in time. Sky folk were superstitious about the treatment of the afflicted and insane, so neighbors often brought her scrolls when they came back from their journeys, though they didn't give souvenirs to anyone else.
Off to one side of her desk, she had two scrolls half unwound and gently held down with flat wooden placeholders. The rest had been carefully set on the shelves in their proper order. Shaman Westwind's sole lesson for her had nothing to do with magic, unlike the other children, and everything to do with the care and arrangement of her collection. Dust wasn't permitted to settle on Shya's shelves, though she had to get rid of it the slow way with a cloth.
She would have liked to be helpful. Her siblings all had positions of some sort, with responsibility commensurate with their age and temperament. Shya's lack of magical potential inspired a lack of confidence in her general abilities. No one wanted her taking care of their children, as she'd once done. To keep the little ones within her reach, she'd made harnesses attached to long leads. Their parents had been horrified. Children had to be allowed to fly freely, they'd insisted. She wasn't even trusted to herd the sheep, and that was a ground bound activity... most of the time. The neighbors had argued that she'd be unable to retrieve strays or fight off predators. Some worried her frailty might attract wolves.
Instead, Shya collected scrolls. She read. And she dreamed of finding a cure that would make her a proper sky folk.
"Grandma Spider dreamed the world, and so it came to be." The tale wasn't new, but the audience was spellbound. The woman had a way with words, and a power even Shya could feel. It was no wonder she was the fire folk's clan shaman. "She built the mountains and filled the oceans. She conjured fire and sky. All this, she gave to the people she had created. But the people did not understand these gifts. They tumbled off the mountains and drown in the oceans. They were burned by the fire and feared what the sky could bring."
The woman stood and slowly looked at the sky and fire folk seated around the fire. Her dark brown eyes appeared black in the low light, and the reflected flames glinted like eerie orange pupils. Her gray-streaked, black hair was back in two braids. Sky folk preferred loose flowing styles and never bound their hair. Shya was certain the woman met her eyes, pausing, before she continued around the circle.
"So from the people, Grandma Spider gathered up four folk to be the stewards of her gifts." The woman smiled, showing bright white teeth in a red-brown face. "The mountain folk know the caves and the peaks. They found power in stones and the dirt of the earth." She flung out her right hand, opening it toward the center of the circle. A handful of dusty soil spread out in a brief puff over the fire for just a moment, and the crowd gasped in amazement.
"The water folk know the rivers and oceans," the woman continued. The familiar tale had become more exciting, with anticipation of what tricks she might next employ. "They found their power in the liquid that gives us all life." Her left-hand came out, and a gentle spray of water sprinkled out into the flames, making the wood sizzle and crackle. "The sky folk, who know the heavens, found power in the winds and weather." She pursed her lips and let out a slow strong breath. She rolled her head at the last-second, and a gentle breeze wrapped around the fire, making the flames twist in an unnatural spiral. The sky folk applauded and cheered in delight, though it wasn't the end of the story.
When the crowd quieted, the woman continued. "The folk of fire know the way of flame, and find their power in heat and all that burns." She held out both hands and the flames rose to twice their height. They suddenly curved at the tip and dove into the woman's hands. Shya gasped along with the other sky folk, then stared, utterly captivated. She had never seen fire magic so close. The shaman glowed orange and yellow, but the fire dancing on her skin didn't hurt her. She turned her palms back toward the empty fire pit, and the flames returned to their place. "Each of these folk were set the task of teaching others to understand Grandma Spider's gifts, while also protecting the world and its many wonders, including those which seem frightening."
After the story, Shya stayed seated while the sky and fire folk stood and began to mingle. The air was filled with greetings and introductions, too many to follow. While she had seen some of the other folk occasionally, this was the largest group to stop by her village on a trading journey. Nearly fifty fire folk had arrived in their wagons that afternoon. They fascinated her, but she was too shy to talk to them. She was afraid they might think she was bad luck, as a clan of water folk had believed. She'd been unable to participate in the festivities during their visit, a year ago, and had to settle for watching it all from the trees, where she couldn't be seen. If she was careful, the fire folk wouldn't notice her, and she wouldn't be sent away.
"I don't blame you for keeping out of the crowd," a woman said, her low voice sympathetic.
Startled, Shya turned to see the storyteller sitting beside her.
The woman smiled. She had crows' feet at the corners of her eyes, and thin lines around her mouth, but Shya couldn't have guessed her age. "I'm called Kell. What's your name?"
Surprised that someone so powerful and important would bother speaking with her, Shya stared for a moment before realizing she was being rude. "I'm Shya. Shya Skychild." She had to say something to keep the woman from asking about her magic, something polite. "Your story... I've never heard it like that before. It was amazing."
Kell chuckled. "It was all showmanship and simple tricks."
"I didn't just mean the magic," Shya said. "You made pictures in my head. I saw the ocean. I think I could even smell it."
"Well thank you." Kell inclined her head slightly. Up close, she was only a little taller than Shya, but she'd seemed huge when she was telling the story. "Do you like tales?"
Shya nodded. "I collect them."
Kell looked intrigued. "Do you?"
"I have scrolls from all over the land." She caught her lower lip in her teeth, wondering if it might have been better to keep that to herself. Would Kell think it odd that a thirteen-year-old collected scrolls? Would she want to know why?
"I have a collection of tales, as well," Kell said. "I can't bring them all when I travel, but I have a fair few along." The sound of drums carried through the gathering, tentative and without a steady beat. That would change. "Would you like to see them?"
Shya was stunned. Not only was the fire shaman paying attention to her, she'd been invited to see the woman's scrolls. Shaman Westwind hadn't let her near his. "Oh, I couldn't," Shya said, wishing she didn't have to politely decline something she desperately wanted. "I'm sure there are others who must want to speak with you, and I couldn't impose."
Kell grinned, her mischievous expression making her look no older than Shya's sixteen-year-old sister. "I'm not one for crowds, so I'd thank you for imposing. And if it makes you feel better, we'll make a trade. You can show me your scrolls tomorrow."
"You'd really want to see them?" Had she left her shelves tidy and ordered?
Kell stood up. "No one will miss us."
Shya followed the older woman into the shadows surrounding the two straight lines of wooden wagons. Oxen, horses, and mules were picketed down both sides of a wide aisle between. When sky folk went trading, they flew and carried only what they had to. Their trips rarely took them far away. Water folk preferred the rivers, and traveled by foot within a few miles of their landings. Mountain folk roamed everywhere in small groups and slept under the open sky, in small tents, or caves when they could be found. Fire folk journeyed great distances, using elaborate wagons as traveling homes and shops.
"Where do you live?" Shya asked.
"We have homes of wood and plaster," Kell explained. "Our clan hails from the foothills of the mountains to the west."
The mountains couldn't be seen from the forest, but Shya had heard of them. "That's far away."
Kell nodded, the movement almost invisible in the dark. "And we'll go farther before turning back." They walked side by side. "Here." She held out her hand, directing Shya toward one of the wagons. "Not all of us have come, of course. Someone has to stay behind to keep the home forges burning. And not everyone enjoys the road."
Metal steps were mounted on the back of the wagon, leading up to a small door. Shya's parents and older siblings would have had to duck to make it through. She stepped into the wagon and froze. It was so dark she couldn't distinguish shapes, though she could hear her hostess moving ahead of her. A pale white glow started up, further in. It was tiny and useless at first, little better than a spark, but it slowly grew into a proper flame.
"I'm sorry," Kell said. "I don't want to blind you, but it's much too dark in here for either of us to appreciate my treasures." After a moment, she lit a second candle.
Shya looked around in awe. She'd never seen the inside of a wagon, and it was marvelous. Just past the door along one wall was a bunk bed. Cupboards with secure looking latches lined the opposite side. The wood had been stained a dark red brown color, and the hardware, hinges, hooks and knobs, were all gleaming brass, a reminder of the fire folk's skill with metalwork. A table was mounted to the wall below a small window, just beyond the bed.
Kell opened one of the large cupboards and waved Shya over. "These are the ones I can't leave home without."
Shya's eyes grew round. The shelves were close together, so the scrolls weren't stacked on each other. The paper on every one was tightly wound, half around each of the two wooden dowels that bound them. The connected rolls were held closed with wide ribbons, the color indicating the scroll's subject matter. White ribbons were for stories and tales, dark green denoted agriculture, and light green was for healing. Black, which bound none of Shya's collection, marked the scrolls pertaining to magic. Kell's scrolls had been divided into two sections, roughly equal in volume, white and black.
Kell reached in and pulled out a scroll of tales. "This is one of my favorites," she said. "I've had it for nearly a decade, and I still take it when I travel." The edges were worn, and the paper discolored. It was long, and Shya wondered if it was a single story or a collection of several. The woman of fire gestured toward the table. "You could read for a while if you like."
Shya looked at the scroll, then strained her ears for the sounds of the gathering outside. Would anyone really miss her so soon? If her parents noticed her absence, they probably assumed she'd gone home to bed. They thought her more frail than she was, and she often stayed up to read long after they sent her to sleep.
"The party is only getting started," Kell assured her. "But I'd understand if you want to go back to the dancing and music."
Shya shook her head. "I like music."
"But not dancing?" Kell asked with a laugh. She shook her head. "Your interests run much like my own."
Shya sat down and carefully removed the white ties, laying them flat on the table beside her. She gently rolled the scroll, winding more paper onto the right dowel as she made her way to the beginning. She was unfamiliar with the tale, which detailed how Grandma Spider selected the folk from the people. It explained how the three spirits worked together to maintain life. The first, arriving on conception, got things started, but couldn't support a life alone. The second came at birth and taught the body to breathe and eat. The first and second spirits had to be compatible. Disagreements between them could cause illness or even death.
She immersed herself in the words, reading well past the point where her eyes were dry and tired. She was oblivious to the sounds of others returning to their wagons as the party wound down. Before she reached the section on the third spirit, the section that might prove most useful to her, she had to set the scroll aside. She lay her arm on the table and rested her forehead near her elbow. Her mind was abuzz with information, so she didn't think she'd ever fall asleep, and she meant only to rest her eyes.
Shya woke to strange sounds and even stranger smells. People were talking, some were running, and she could hear the laughter of children. That was wrong. Her bedroom window opened to the trees, and sky folk didn't run. Her head throbbed, and her eyes felt full of sand. When she opened them at last, she looked up at a ceiling she didn't recognize. She started, rolling to her left, and fell out of the top bunk of a bed with a yelp.
"Are you all right?" a woman asked, her voice concerned.
Shya had landed on her hands and knees, and the shock traveled up her arms to her shoulders. Wincing, she sat back on her heels, looking toward the front of Kell's wagon. She recognized where she was, but couldn't imagine why she was still there. "I think so." She tried to remember what happened before she'd fallen asleep, but her headache made thinking difficult. She felt like she'd stayed up all night reading, and realized she had. She shook out her arms, quickly assessing her actual injury. Nothing felt broken, and she'd had enough broken bones to know. Her knees would bruise in another day, and her wrists felt sprained, both of them, though mildly. The pain was deep and sharp, but only when she moved wrong.
Kell helped her up, making her sit on the lower bunk of the bed she'd just fallen out of. "Here, let me take a look." She checked Shya's hands first, then ran her own over the wrists. She frowned. "These are going to hurt, and I'm afraid there's nothing I can do about that."
"It's okay," Shya said. "I'm used to it."
Kell looked puzzled, but didn't ask. "I'm so sorry. I thought you'd be more comfortable higher up." She stood. "And I didn't think sky folk could fall like the rest of us."
Shya looked down at her bare feet, embarrassed.
"Now what have I said to upset you?" Kell asked.
"I'm not bad luck, really, I'm not," Shya said quietly. "I'd know if I were."
"Who said anything about bad luck?"
Shya didn't answer for a moment. "I have a weak third spirit," she finally said, furious with it for ruining her life. Her eyes stung, and she knew that wasn't a holdover from her late night of reading. She took a deep breath, angry with herself for almost crying in front of someone she barely knew. She glared at her hostess. "I'm not good at anything."
Kell's expression softened, but didn't change to one of pity, which was just as well. Shya would have run out of the wagon then and there, without her boots, if she had to endure that on top of her other humiliation. "I very much doubt that you're not good at anything," the older woman said. "Now come to the table. You should break your fast."
Shya got up and found that a bowl of warm oat mash awaited her. A plate of early raspberries was in the middle of the table. "Thank you," she said, feeling awkward as she sat on the bench. "I'm sorry I was rude." What would her parents think? Her parents... "I should get home," she said urgently, standing up.
Kell shook her head. "Sit down and eat. Your family knows where you are."
The oat mash had been sweetened with something that wasn't maple sugar, but it was good. There was also a little cinnamon, which Shya was familiar with. She ate in silence, still embarrassed and unsure what to say. Her wrists twinged a reminder when she moved them, so she made an effort to keep them straight. It was difficult, and she'd need to bind them soon.
Kell sat down at the other side of the table. "You don't look like you have a weak third spirit," she said after some time.
Shya glanced up from the bowl. "I can only do the teeniest magic."
"Would you tell me a little more about the magic you can do, and what you're supposed to be able to, but can't?" Kell asked. "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings, I'm just curious how your magic works."
How her magic worked. Shya let out a snort. Strangely, it didn't hurt to be asked, when asked the right way. "Sky magic uses the winds." She shook her head. "But I can't speak the language. I can't make the winds understand me, and I don't know their words."
Kell nodded. "That makes sense, in a way." Resting her elbows on the table she leaned forward, looking at Shya as though trying to see under her skin. "Fire magic is much the same, as I imagine all magics of the folk are. The flames have a language, and in order to command them you have to be able to speak it." She leaned back and shrugged. "Some of us have a greater vocabulary, but all fire folk are born knowing the language."
"The winds are kinder on warm days," Shya explained, wanting to make it clear that she wasn't entirely devoid of power. "I still can't understand what they whisper, not all of it, but I think they humor me, which means they must be able to understand me... at least a little. And on really hot days I can fly... though I'm not very good at it."
Kell looked thoughtful. "I wonder if something went wrong with your initiation."
Shya shook her head. "It was the same as everyone else's. My parents and Shaman Westwind thought of that. In case I was just a little slow, I had a second initiation." She didn't like to think about it. She couldn't remember the first one because she'd been too young. The second time haunted her. At night, she sometimes felt herself falling, and she knew everyone was watching, waiting for her to start flying. She always woke just as she reached the ground. "It didn't help." She'd broken both legs. That was when people started treating her differently.
The expression on Kell's face indicated that she was puzzling over the problem. "What does the wind feel like to you?"
"What does it feel like?" Shya shrugged. "It's wind. What's it supposed to feel like?"
Kell nodded. "I suppose that follows."
"Follows what?" Shya asked.
"If your magic isn't very strong, it's logical that the touch of wind doesn't do for you what it does for others." Kell gathered up the dishes and stood. "You see, to sky folk, fire is just hot. If you get too close to it, you'd pull back."
"Fire isn't hot to you?" She'd wondered how the fire folk could handle it.
Kell tipped her head to one side, then the other. "From a distance it feels hot. When I touch it, it's warm and soft. It's like the feeling you have when you wake up in the winter, but you're still all toasty warm under your blankets." She smiled. "The flames are my friends, and I can feel that when I touch them. I assume sky folk feel the breezes the same way."
Shya slouched in her chair. Not only had her stupid third spirit condemned her to a life essentially without magic, she would never know the touch of her element. She could have lived without that knowledge, and now that she had it, it would rankle and growing worse over time.
"We should be going," Kell said.
Shya stood up. "We?" she asked, looking at her hostess in confusion.
Kell nodded. "We had a bargain. I showed you my scrolls, and now you've got to show me yours." She gestured toward the door with one open hand. "Besides, I promised your parents I would bring you home after you'd eaten."
Once outside, Kell deposited the dishes in a water-filled basin in front of the neighboring wagon. A young woman poked her head out the window at the sounds, then smiled and waved. The fire shaman waved back, then dropped her hand to Shya's shoulder.
"How do those wrists feel?" Kell asked as they walked through the encampment.
Shya held out her arms and gently rotated her hands. "A little stiff," she admitted, suspecting the woman would know if she lied. They ached with her pulse, but mentioning that would only be whining. Shya detested whiners.
None of the adult fire folk seemed to think it odd, the company their shaman kept. Bexa was with a group of fire children, and they passed a second mixed group of youths near the forest edge. Both times, the conversation had broken off as Shya and Kell approached, and she was certain it wasn't just her own clan who stared. At last, they reached her home tree.
The trees of the sky folk were enormous, their trunks wider than four wagons parked together. Although it was grooved, the bark was smooth, without cracks or flakes. The Skychild tree stood out from all the others, even those housing other sky folk. A case of wooden stairs circled the trunk up to the door. When being nasty, her siblings called it Shya's Path.
"This is to my liking," Kell said as she followed up the steps. "Fire folk don't fly. Not ever. And being helped up into one of your homes..."
Shya looked over her shoulder and saw the woman shake her head. "Is disquieting," she suggested.
"Much worse than that," Kell said with a laugh. "I'm used to being in control of myself and where I am." She shook her head again. "And I loathe heights."
Shya stopped, turning fully around. "You do?" she asked in surprise. This woman was stronger than anyone else Shya had met, yet something as simple as a distance from the ground unsettled her. It made her seem more real, but it also didn't quite seem possible. "But you have all that magic."
"Yes I do," Kell agreed. "But flying is very different from what I do, and all magics have limits."
Shya continued up the stairs, her thoughts everywhere and nowhere at the same time. What kind of reception would her guest get from her family? For once the stairs were useful and not merely a sign of shame. What savories were worthy of serving to a shaman of the fire folk? Who was home? Was she in trouble? Her room and shelves had better be neat.
Magic had limits.
Shya tried to shrug off the hands that shook her, thinking they were part of her dream. They persisted and were accompanied by a voice that made itself heard through her sleep-muddled mind.
"Wake up Shya," her mother said. "You have someplace to be this morning."
Shya groaned and opened her eyes. The room was dark, lit only by a candle, which meant the sun wasn't up yet. It was no wonder she was tired and difficult to wake. She'd sat up late with Kell, talking and looking over scrolls, as they'd done the last several nights. The fire folk would move on in a few days, which meant they had only so much time to share their favorites. Shaman Westwind had come looking for Kell when Shya had, at last, returned to the first tale Kell shared. He'd insisted on consulting with the fire shaman privately. Kell had clearly brushed aside his earlier requests, as well as those from others, and finally had to take the time to meet with him. Shya hoped there might still be time for her to finish that scroll.
"You're being a light breeze," her mother said in gentle chastisement. "Get up. You need to get dressed."
Shya sat up and pushed the covers away, noticing as she did, that her bandaged wrists didn't hurt. She wiggled them gently, as far as the wrappings would let her. They were still sore when pushed, but they were definitely better. She realized her mother was laying out her best clothing. "What's going on?" she asked, wondering if she'd missed something important in all her absences of late. "Where are we going?"
Her mother paused for a moment, then continued to rummage through Shya's socks. "I can't tell you where. You have a part in a ritual, and it's no small honor."
Shya would have guessed that from the fancy tunic her mother wore. Individual pearls and white glass beads made a swirling pattern reminiscent of wind across the front and back. Strands of pearls mingled with the long fringe on the underside of the sleeves. Shya's own dress clothes were more simple; white sheepskin pants with matching fringe running down the outside seams, and a matching shirt that hit the middle of her thighs. She had no beads or pearls. When she was older, she might have something fancier, but the fringe would never dance in the wind. Like her hair, the dangling bits of leather tangled instead of swirling prettily. The fringe was characteristic of her folk, not just her clan, but Shya's fringe was only about an inch long.
Something about her mother wasn't quite right, but Shya couldn't quite put her finger on what. It wasn't fear, exactly, but it wasn't sadness either. Worry was the closest thing Shya could come up with, though it wasn't the same kind of worry her mother exhibited when she caught Shya out on the big branch.
Papa waited at the bottom of the stairs. As he paced through the great room, looking every inch a proper sky folk, it was clear something troubled him as well.
"Where we going?" Shya asked. None of her siblings had been roused along with her, and she couldn't imagine what special event would involve her but not the others.
"To meet an unprecedented opportunity," he said. "Come along. We mustn't be late."
Shya expected her parents to fly wherever they were headed, with them pushing her along. Instead, her father went out the door and started down the stairs. She barely remembered him building them, and that had been the only time she'd ever seen him use them. She hurried to follow, her mother a few paces behind. "What's going on?" she asked once they were about halfway down the spiral. It was clear they were keeping something from her, but she couldn't guess what it might be.
For a long time, her only answer was silence. They were nearly to the ground when her father finally replied. "We have made an arrangement for you. More than that, I can't tell you at this time." Though Papa wasn't the type to speak without thinking, he seemed to be choosing his words more carefully than usual. "If things go well, you'll understand it all shortly."
His response raised more questions than it answered. An arrangement? She was the right age for her people to agree upon matches. The weddings, of course, took place years later. Shya's oldest sister had been promised at thirteen and would marry this summer, at seventeen. But she hadn't considered such things for herself. Who would seek to match their son with her? The answer was, too clearly, no one, and Shya wondered what other kinds of arrangements involved a ritual. She was too old for an apprenticeship and insufficiently skilled for anything else.
She walked between her parents, their boots rustling in last fall's soggy leaves. Although she went for walks as often as it was permitted, they moved into a part of the forest she was unfamiliar with.
"We love you," her mother said.
While Shya didn't doubt the sentiment, the words felt ominous instead of reassuring.
They walked for half an hour or longer, going farther from the village than she'd ever been alone, and she could feel the sun lurking just beyond the horizon. She heard low voices on the gentle breeze, but didn't recognize them. Then they entered a clearing, and she understood why. A small group of people were waiting, all fire folk in their formal dark red tunics and black pants, snug at the wrists and ankles. Despite her infirmity, Shya could sense the magic that saturated even the air she breathed.
In the low light, she recognized the fire clan chieftain and his wife. He raised a hand to Shya's parents in greeting as they approached. Two brawny big men she'd seen but never met stood nearby. Kell was also there, holding the tall black staff of a fire shaman. Her hair was back in two neat braids, while the other fire folk wore only one. Three horizontal stripes of yellow adorned her right cheek, and her left eye was circled in the same color. She glanced over Shya quickly, not meeting her eyes.
The ritual her parents mentioned must be one of the fire folk. What purpose could she possibly serve? Why hadn't anyone prepared her? Perhaps her part was simple.
"The sun wakes," the chieftain said, nodding to Shya's parents. "If it is to be done, it is time." He bowed to Shya in a way that signified great respect, then slowly backed away.
She looked up at her parents in confusion as they each took one of her hands. "If what is to be done?"
"The ritual," Papa said as they led her farther into the clearing. "It's timed for sunrise."
In the very center was a fire pit large enough to roast a wild boar, ringed with stones. Fresh kindling and split firewood had been neatly stacked within. A taller log had been left, whole and standing upright, in the very center. It was the strangest thing she'd ever seen.
Her parents halted at the edge of the ring, staring into it without seeming to see. Now that she was closer, Shya could see that the firewood had been placed several inches away from the odd post in the center. She was no expert on building fires, but she supposed it could be characteristic of the fire folk. They didn't have to worry about their flames not catching, or about them spreading where they weren't wanted.
"It is needful for you to go into the center, Shya," Papa said, staring straight ahead. He dropped her hand, and a moment later her mother did the same. He slipped a small knife from its sheath at his belt and nonchalantly sliced through one of the thin strips dangling from his right pant leg. "Here," he said, giving Shya the fringe piece while handing the knife to his wife.
"What's this for?" Shya asked, pinching the long strip to hold it up.
"Take this as well," her mother said, holding out a beaded dangle still attached to a piece of leather fringe.
"Hang them on the post," her father said. "There should be some chains around the back you can tie them to."
"That's all I have to do?" Shya asked. So far it looked nothing like sky folk rituals, and she'd never heard of combining sky and fire magic. Could it even be done?
"Once you're there, we'll see what follows," he replied.
Off to one side, there was a gap in the kindling that made a suitable path. In the center, the ground was a little lower, and Shya could see that the end of the post had been buried to keep it standing straight. She walked around it once, making an effort not to touch anything, lest she disturb something important. She found the two thick chains hanging on the back of the post. Like the clearing, the chains emanated magic, but they looked new, recently forged.
Shya slipped her father's fringe piece through one link in the middle of one chain. She tied it in a square knot, then did the same with her mother's fringe on the other chain. Perhaps they needed to be placed by one who wouldn't leave a hint of her own power on them. With her weak spirit, she was ideal for such a task. Finished, she walked the rest of the way around the post and looked over the firewood at her parents. They seemed farther away than they should have. For a moment she thought she saw tears on her mother's cheeks, but that couldn't be right. What reason would her mother have to cry? Her father's expression was blank, the way it was when he was trying to reign in a particularly intense feeling.
"Now what should I do?" she asked.
"Stand still for a moment," he instructed.
She stood and waited, trying to be both patient and very still. The chains on the other side of the post sprung to life with a rattle. When she would have stepped away, a strong gust of wind pressed her back against the upright log. One chain leapt over each of her shoulders, then crossed her chest to hold her fast. When they stopped moving, she looked up and saw that her mother's outstretched right hand controlled the wind.
"Mummie, what are you doing? What's happening?" Shya squirmed against the chains, but couldn't get loose. The same fear she felt in her dreams of falling gripped her. Her face grew hot, and her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Her parents stepped back, and the fire folk came closer. She couldn't hear Kell's words, and after a moment Shya was completely preoccupied by the flames that jumped from the palms of the fire folks' hands onto the kindling.
Had she truly been so terrible that she had to be killed? Couldn't they just send her away, if her failure was too much to bear? She'd never read of such things, but the heat of the growing fire squashed any doubt of what was happening. She struggled to free herself, but the chains tightened, holding her more firmly against the post. By coincidence, the chains overlapped where she'd tied her parents' fringes. They twisted a little in the fire's breeze.
"Please! Don't do this, please!" Shya cried. "I don't know what I did to make you do this to me. But I'm sorry! Please, just let me go! I'll leave. I promise. I'll go away!"
One by one, the folk outside the circle turned their backs on her. The heat rising over the top of the orange flames distorted her parents' expressions as they turned away. Kell was the last to do so. For a moment, she very definitely met Shya's eyes. There was meaning in her expression, but Shya was unsure what it was. Then the shaman who had become her friend put her back to Shya.
The wood was dry, and the fire magically conjured, so the flames spread quickly. Shya sweated as she again tried to break free, although she was certain she couldn't escape even if she got loose. The fire was too big, too hot. There was no way out of her ring of flames. She whimpered as the heat surrounded her, closing her off from the rest of the world. Her life wasn't exactly charmed, but it was hers, and the only one she would get.
She begged her third spirit to help her, but it didn't listen. Instead of a breeze, hot tongues of flame lapped out, teasingly close but not yet touching her. Some of the piled firewood to her right collapsed with a crunch and a whoosh, sending sparks flying. The fire crawled among the falling bits to wrap around her ankle.
She took a deep breath, but her scream died unvoiced. The fire felt warm, not hot, as it slowly twined up her right leg. It spoke in a language of shifting light, heat, and soft sizzling noises. It would not harm her. It would burn things, heat things, and hurt others for her, but it would never hurt her. The flames were soft and comfortable, not sharp as she expected. Then she remembered Kell's words. The flames are my friends, and I can feel that when I touch them.
Shya took a slow deep breath, calling the fire that circled her. It came. It swarmed over her, sinking in and becoming part of her. She knew the nature of fire in a way that she had never understood the winds. She stood still for long moment, savoring the warmth and happiness she'd never known before. When she opened her eyes, she saw that she'd extinguished the fire, leaving cold coals and half charred wood behind. There wasn't even smoke. Then she noticed that she was naked, though her pale skin wasn't marked with ash or soot.
"I'm done," she called. "I think." She couldn't imagine that there would be anything else to the initiation than what she'd already gone through. If she weren't so happy, if her third spirit wasn't making itself so joyfully apparent, she would have been furious. Instead, she understood. No initiation was without its danger, and in time someone would explain why it needed to be done this way.
Kell was the first to look at her, and she was smiling. "I'll start teaching you to work metal this winter," she said. The chains relaxed and slipped away. She beckoned to Shya.
As the rest of the folk turned to watch her, Shya looked down at her feet, acutely aware of her nudity. She was much too old to parade around bare. She should have felt cold, she realized, but the fire she'd taken into herself warmed her.
Fabric was laid across her shoulders and she raised her head. The chieftain and his wife draped a red robe over her, helping her get her arms into the sleeves, and fastening the ties for her. He took Shya's face in both hands and kissed her on the cheeks. "We welcome you among us, my daughter," he said. "May your flame burn brightly for many years to come."
Shya tucked the last of her scrolls into the cabinet. She could hear her parents outside, talking to Kell. They'd seemed so torn in the last two days. She wasn't sick and weak anymore, but she was no longer sky folk. In truth, she had never been sky folk, and she didn't belong with them. They had to let her go, and they weren't happy about it.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the way you named her," Kell said. "You called a third spirit, and one came. It just happened to be a fire spirit, instead of the expected sky spirit. It can happen." There was a pause. "That's why we had to do her initiation the way we did. Only that kind of fear, and desperation for survival, can awaken a spirit so long dormant." She'd given Shya the same explanation, with more detail, on the walk back to the village after the ritual.
Shya felt it was well worth the fear, and she hadn't woken with fiery nightmares from the experience. The fire was inside her now, a part of her. She'd never be afraid of it. It was what her family felt about the wind, and it was something she could finally understand. She was no longer dormant.
Between childhood and adulthood lie the greatest adventures of wonder. The heroes and heroines of these seven stories embark on fantastical journeys of discovery and growth as they find out just who they are, what world they live in, and what their destinies are. Along the way, evil and not-so-evil obstacles stand in their way and magic, for better or worse, plays a major role in each of their adventures.
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