Ha! I got her. Usually the human is pretty good at this game, even if she has to catch herself on a counter a lot. But this time, when I darted between her feet with an extra little twist I've been practicing, she gave a squeak and fell flat on her tush. Silly human.
Then she started shouting at me, though. Humans are such sore losers. I jumped up on the couch and purred at Mocha, and maybe I was a little smug, because I am the best ever
at Trip the Human. He meowed crossly, but that didn't matter.
We could always play again tomorrow.Trifecta prompt. 106th week, 106 words.
Beneath rotting leaves, a single pawprint.
Bobcat, bear? Some overgrown wolf?
Lion, this deep in the jungle?
Listen—there—a branch snaps.
A whistle that is not the wind.
Lion? No. Never a lion.
And now you are no longer tracking the manticore--
the manticore is tracking you.
So, Trifecta is on its 100th week. Yay! And this story worked out to 100 words. From now on, just for fun, I'm going to match the word count to the challenge number. I get one extra word every week.For this challenge, the word to use was phantom.
“Please,” I said, “please—“
He twirled his tail between his fingers. “Of course. I am a phantom of mercy.” He gave a lazy wave of his hand.
The images before me vanished, but I knew they would be there waiting if I closed my eyes. “Please, she's only a child. She doesn't need to die.”
“Indeed she doesn't. We can give you the power to save her, yes we can.” He leered. “Do we have a bargain?”
I licked my lips. “Yes.” My voice came out in a whisper.
His smile grew, showing pointed teeth. “Then your soul is mine.”
Happy ninety-ninth, Trifecta!
When he flicked the switch, the machine started pumping gas into the den with a hiss. Chirps floated from behind the blockade across the entrance.
He lit a cigarette. There might be easier ways to handle the den's inhabitants, but he wasn't going anywhere near these little monsters, not while they were alive.
The hissing stopped. He turned. The creature that clutched the crumpled machine let go, and reached for him.
The cigarette fell to the ground. A single chirp came from the den. The creature crooned in answer, reassuring her baby
Mother was home, and she had food.
“What are you going to do with all the magic from the well, anyway?” Tag asked, watching Samira rub mint on a stone from the riverbed. This was part of preparing a Keeper, and so far Tag hadn't found it as interesting as Samira had suggested. She missed the spells she had been starting to learn.
“You ask the hardest questions, do you know that?” Samira discarded the mint for a handful of sand. “You recall my telling your mother that I sometimes sell herbs at the fair on the other side of the forest?”
“Mother told me.”
“People like those herbs, and my simple medicines, much better if they've been strengthened with magic. I use it up in little dribs, and I trade for what I need to live comfortably here in the forest. Some of the rest of the magic, I use for practice.”
“Like when you raised the water that day I saw you,” said Tag.
“Practicing for what?”
“Mmm... I'll tell you some day. But there's something I'm working on, and I can't yet use magic well enough to do it.”
Tag scowled a bit. “You can't tell me at all?”
The witch set down the Keeper and looked at her. “Ah, Tag, not yet. I know you don't like this part as much as using the magic once we have it. And to tell the truth, I don't know for sure what I'm going to do with it all. I only know that it's not good for wells to be left untouched, and that magic is a very useful thing to have.”
“I guess so.”
“But you find this part boring. I can't blame you. How about going to find some more things to use as Keepers? Durable things, not leaves or wood. Stones are generally a good bet, at least as big as this one.”
Tag jumped up. “I'll do that! I'll try the stream first.”
“Wonderful. I'll stay here to do the crafting.”
The stream had plenty of pebbles, but not many that were as large as Samira had said. Tag was crouched by the water, searching the streambed, when a rustle caught her attention. She looked up to see an owl extracting itself from a tangle of leaves in a tree. It got loose and glided to another tree, then another. Tag sucked in her breath. She hadn't ever seen an owl in the daytime before. Without thinking, she grabbed the stones she had found and began to follow the owl, soft and silent like she had learned from long practice.
For a while she only caught glimpses of its gray-brown feathers through the branches. Then it swooped out of a tree and straight into the undergrowth.
Maybe it had caught something. Tag moved closer to try to see.
But the next second, the owl rose in a flurry of feathers and landed on a branch, where it clung. It turned and fixed her in its yellow gaze. She stared back. Then, with a screech, it dove at her.
She yelped and scrambled back, taken off balance. As the owl stretched out its talons, she hurled the rocks she held.
The owl was so close that two of them hit it, despite her wild aim. It screeched again and broke away. Tag hurriedly shifted the remaining two stones to her right hand, but the owl was gliding away. It soared through the branches and was gone.
It was only then, as Tag stood there panting, that she realized she was back at the well of magic. She should have recognized it, but she had come from a different direction and had been watching the owl. But there was the mint patch... and there, right where the owl had dived into the bushes, was the spot where the well had caught Kirchai.
Even as she retreated, throwing frequent glances behind her, Tag worried it over in her mind. She wondered if the well attracted animals somehow, or maybe just owls, or if it made them angry, or what.
In the end, she shrugged and hurried toward the great oak. These days, she knew just what to do when she found something in the forest she didn't understand. She would ask Samira.To be continued...
The girl who stole the sky watched them bury her father, and cried. Her tears fell with the ash.
From where she floated she looked down on the two men who were piling stones on her father's body. Only two. If any other man of the village had died, there would have been a dozen mourners, with tears and chants. These two men finished the mound, touched the stones in farewell, and left.
She had told her cloudbeast to bring her down below the ash for this, so she could see. Now, at her touch, the solid cloud beneath her carried her up into the smog, and she closed her eyes against the sting. In the clear air above, she drew up a filmy wall of cloud to shield her from the burning sun.
Her cloudbeast squelched, unhappy that she was unhappy. She coughed the ash out of her throat. Her stomach was empty and her throat was raw. "Let's leave. Go somewhere."
It hummed questioningly. She stared out at the sky around her, the same blank blue in all directions. "Wherever you want," she said, and urged her cloudbeast forward.
It found a wind, sailing majestically above the sea of gray ash. She sank into the cloud, and remembered.
They had taken her father to the Shadow Tree.
She had never been down in the pit before. Pale branches hunched against the earth ceiling, twice as high as her head. Through the dimness, she saw a dark shape on the ground below, wrapped in the Shadow Tree's roots. It was lying very still.
"Father," she said, and ran to him.
He opened his eyes. "Embli—" He broke into a cough. The healer came from the shadows to hand him a cup. Her father drank.
"Embli," he whispered. "It's good that you're here."
"Will you be all right, Father?" Her voice came out in a whisper like his. "The hunters said you were hurt. How are you hurt?" She couldn't see any injury under the roots that twined around him.
He put his hand on his chest, where the roots were thickest. "Bear. Tunez found it, tried to kill it himself. He didn't mean to lead it back to us, I know, but... it was wounded. Angry."
Embli took his hand. Her eyes followed the roots to where the Shadow Tree itself stood, stunted and ugly. She shook off the thought. It was going to heal her father.
"Embli," her father whispered. "Do you remember when we came here?"
She couldn't remember. She had been a baby. But she said, "I know the story, Father."
"Tell it to me, this time."
She had told it more than once to her cloudbeast, in the moons since she met it out on the hills, although it couldn't understand. She pulled the words to mind. "It was the end of the rainy time. I had just been born, and you were very happy, because Mother used to be sick and you both thought she couldn't have any children. She stayed home to rest while you took me to the guardian, the one who lives in the volcano." Embli smiled. "He blessed me as part of the village, and said I had parrot eyes, and you told him my name.
"You don't know when the killing waters came—and neither do I—" She hesitated. Her father sometimes skipped this part, and she didn't want to talk about it now either. "But when we got back, Mother and everyone else was dead, so we left."
Her father closed his eyes. She took a deep breath and continued.
"It took a long time to reach this village, even though it was the closest one. It was all the way on the other side of the volcano, and I was still a baby, so you had to carry me. Finally we got here, and we met Intan and Tunez and Raet, and at first they thought we were bad luck. But they let us live here, and after a while they didn't think we were bad luck anymore..." She wanted to say "mostly," it rose in her mouth, but her father was lying there hurt and she swallowed it down. "And now it's our home, our new home."
Her father squeezed her hand. "It's your home now, and these are your people. They will always be your people."
"And yours, too," Embli said. He nodded slightly, but she was still worried. She shifted, avoiding the Shadow Tree's roots.
"Father..." she said. "The guardian, the volcano guardian—he heals people, right? Like he healed mother before I was born?"
He nodded again. A root crept from his chest and rewound itself, snakelike.
"Then, can you go to him? He can heal you, too! I know it's farther from here than from the old village, but I'm sure my cloudbeast would carry you, you wouldn't have to walk or anything...."
Her father was shaking his head. "Even if it would carry me, it would take too long. I need the Shadow Tree, Embli. It serves the village and its people. It will heal me, and then I'll be myself again." He smiled faintly.
She looked up at the tree. It was twisted, grotesque.
Then the healer came forward and said it was time for her to leave her father alone. As he led her up the ramp into the evening sunlight, he said, "The Shadow Tree is strong, child. It will heal him." He retreated into the pit.
She stood looking after him, and wished she felt as sure.
That night Embli rode her cloudbeast farther than ever before. It seemed ages before they were hovering directly over the volcano, a dark mass in the night.
"So that's it," she said, peering down. The cloudbeast hummed.
It looked just like a normal mountain to her, but her father had told her old stories of it throwing fire and smoke into the sky. His people—her first people—had had many stories, some of them about the guardian who lived here. The stories said he had a face like a human's, but large and made of stone; that he moved through the earth like it was water; that he could heal anyone who came to him.
The stories said he was the only thing that kept the volcano calm. It looked calm enough now. She wasn't afraid of mountains, or volcanoes either.
"Let me down here. Down."
Her cloudbeast inched forward against the wind to lower her onto the slope. She wobbled on the solid earth, looking around. Bushes and boulders cast green shadows in the light of the sister moons, but nothing moved.
"Hello?" she called. "Guardian, volcano guardian, if you're there, I want to talk to you." She started to climb. "Please? I'm Embli. You saw me when I was a baby."
There was no answer for a few heartbeats, then one of the shadows rose in front of her. She blinked, and couldn't tell whether he had come through the rock or been there all along.
"I remember you," he said. His smile spread wide, wider, across a face that was as large as her whole body. The chin rested on the ground, and the rest of him was hidden in the shadows. "Parrot eyes."
"Yes." Embli swallowed. "My father was the one that brought me, back then. He was part of the village you healed people from. And he's been injured. Can you heal him? Please?"
The guardian lifted large eyebrows. "If he comes to me, I will do my best. Where is he?"
"He's back in the village, the other village." She pointed into the darkness behind her. "He's hurt too bad to come. Can you come to him? It's not far, and my cloudbeast will carry you."
The guardian gazed at her.
She waited, fidgeting.
Finally he said, "It cannot carry me. My stone is too heavy. But you and your father are the last people left of my village, and I will go to him." Before she could reply, the guardian rose up, emerging fully from the shadows. A long body, four short legs, a tail. He curled himself up and rolled, slowly at first, then faster, like a giant boulder crashing down the side of the volcano.
"Thank you!" she shouted after him. She reached out her arms, grinning, and fog enveloped her as her cloudbeast came down. "Let's go home."
They were in the sky, halfway back to the village, when she heard a rumble behind her and turned to look. The volcano had come alive. Its peak glowed in the night, and thick smoke flowed from it, following the wind toward them.
Her cloudbeast let Embli down out of sight of the village, and she ran the rest of the way, frightened by the trembling of the ground.
The disturbance had woken the villagers. A knot of people stood at the edge of the huts, staring at the volcano. She tried to slip past them, but they gathered around her with shrill questions.
"What did you do?" demanded Ranzep, grabbing her arm, and the others echoed her. "You made the mountain angry!" someone hissed.
Embli yanked free. "I didn't do anything! Let me go!" She dodged out of the crowd and ran through the village to the Shadow Tree's pit. A hunter stepped into the entrance, blocking her.
"Wait, girl...." He reached for her, but she spun and ran into her father's hut instead. They didn't follow her.
She put her head on her knees. The villagers had seen her leave the village that evening, heading for the volcano. It was easy to think that she was responsible for the quivering ground, the smoke she had seen.
The ground shook beneath her, and she shivered with it. Had she done this?
She slipped out in the dark to the Shadow Tree's pit, but the healer stopped her at the bottom of the ramp and told her to stay out.
"The Shadow Tree is strong," he said, "but you must not disturb it. You can't help your father here."
She retreated back up the ramp. Only the volcano guardian could help her father. Where was he? Was he still coming?
She slept on and off until dawn, and was woken by voices at the door. The villagers pushed into her hut and dragged her outside, sending up puffs of ash with their footsteps. She was too tired to resist. Out in the murky dawn light, the sky and the ground were both invisible. The smoke had turned to ash, covering everything.
The villagers were bristling with words.
"Made the mountain angry."
"She's the one it wants."
"Stole the sky."
"She's bad luck."
"Give her to the mountain. A trade for the sky."
"Can't stay here."
"The girl has stolen the sky."
She fought down fear. Some part of her wasn't sure she had woken up yet.
Then, through the ring of people, she saw two hunters carrying something large out of the Shadow Tree's pit, and she suddenly knew she wasn't dreaming. "What is that?" she said. "Who is that? What are they doing?" Legs dangled lifelessly down from their burden.
Only a few of the villagers turned to look. Ranzep, her voice firm, said, "Your father is dead, girl. Even the Shadow Tree could not save him." People said other things, too.
Embli no longer heard them.
Then Ranzep called out, "Take her." Hunters came forward.
Fog fell all at once, muffling the cries of the villagers. The girl who stole the sky reached out to her cloudbeast. It lifted her high, above the villagers' heads, and they stared up at her as she vanished into the gray curtain of ash.
The girl who stole the sky roused and looked around. Everything above the ash was the same. "Down," she said, pressing, and her cloudbeast sank obediently.
Even below the smog, the land looked unfamiliar. Only the volcano was the same, a little closer than from the village. It still grumbled occasionally, with puffs of smoke. The village and her father's grave were well behind them.
Scanning the ground, she caught movement, a gray shape on the gray plain. She blinked as she recognized it, and urged her cloudbeast to land close by. The guardian saw her and crawled over, slow and heavy on the flatlands. He rested his chin on the ground, facing her.
"He died," she said.
The guardian closed his eyes briefly. "I am sorry."
"Why is the volcano doing this?" she asked. "Can you make it stop?"
The guardian glanced back at the volcano. "It has always been touchy. I thought perhaps it wouldn't mind if I left for a short time, but clearly I was wrong." He sighed. "It will calm down, now that I return."
"Good." She looked away. The volcano would give the sky back after all. She suddenly wanted to be away from the guardian, alone. She called her cloudbeast down.
The guardian of the volcano watched her rise. "Good luck, parrot eyes, last of my village," he called. Then he turned, and made his way back toward his volcano.
The girl who stole the sky rose with her cloudbeast through the ash. Above it, the air was clear and wide. She leaned forward, and they moved farther into the sky.
Up and down, up and down. From my position at the bow, I had an excellent view of the waves as each one struck the ship, rocking it back and forth. I closed my eyes to shut out the sight.
They popped open again as a particularly large wave hit, sending a jolt through the wood. I clamped my arms around my stomach and moaned. Was there anything worse than being seasick?
"We'll be hittin' calmer water soon," said a cheerful voice behind me. I looked back to see one of the sailors. He ambled forward and leaned over the rail. "Almost to shore."
I grimaced and turned away. "At least you'll be able to get off and walk around on solid ground. I'll still be stuck here as the stupid figurehead." I reached one of my wooden hands down to tug uselessly at the nails that held me to the front of the ship.
"Well, now, I'm not so sure of that," said the sailor. "Cap'n ain't been too impressed with your performance on this trip. He thought you'd bring us luck, like. Not go bellyachin' the whole time to anyone who came near." I twisted to see him grinning.
"You think he'd leave me ashore?" I asked, hope and fear bubbling up inside me. "That would be great, as long as he doesn't smash me to pieces or anything. I mean, even if he just tosses me in a junkheap, I can drag myself out of there."
"Reckon you'd have to, without legs," he observed, glancing down at my solid wooden base. "How'd you get to be here, anyhow?"
I faced forward again, watching the horizon to avoid looking at the unsteady water below me. "I was made by an old wizard who was half wood nymph and half human. He died just a few days after he woke me up, so I don't know what he was like, really." I shrugged. "The captain of this ship – or this stupid boat, I'm not even sure it's big enough to be called a ship – anyway, he helped clean out the wizard's place. And he thought it'd be cool to have a talking figurehead." I made a face. "He didn't even ask me first. And now I can hardly move, and the spray is bad for my wood, and I'm seasick all the time!" A seagull screeched overhead. It was probably just my imagination that it was laughing at me.
"Well, now there's a misfortune," said the sailor. "I remember when I first came to the seaboats as a lad, I used to get the bellychurns something awful. But I got used to the water, I did, and I reckon you might, too. Still, there don't seem much point in you sticking around if you ain't drawn to the sea."
A selkie poked his head out of the water beside the bow and barked a question. The sailor nodded down at him. "Aye, that'd be fine. Cap'n will pay well afterwards, like always." The selkie's round head vanished under the waves.
I turned to the sailor. "What did –"
"The sealfolk guide us through the rocks hereabouts. Other times, they make mighty fine fishing partners, too." He grinned at me. "Tell you what, when we get ashore I'll ask the cap'n to resign you from your current position as figurehead, gentle-like. He'll listen to me. I'm the first mate, if you didn't know, and he ain't too attached to you anyhow... even if the ship is."
"Really? Thank you so much!" I said. "I might not know much about the world yet, but I know I'll like it more if I'm not always getting bounced up and down on the front of a big boat. It will be great to get ashore!"
"Aye, there ain't nothing wrong with good solid land, if that's your likin'," he said. A yell came from above, and he glanced up. "Reckon I better get to handling the docking. I wish you the best of luck." He spread his wings and buzzed away into the lower rigging.
I turned back to the open water. It had calmed somewhat while we were talking, and now the waves only rolled the ship lightly. As shouted orders floated from the rigging, the ship wheeled to starboard, and in front of me the harbor opened up. The docks, and the town behind them, looked wonderfully solid and steady.
A seagull swooped overhead, cackling. This time I laughed, too. "Laugh all you want," I called to it. I spread my arms wide and let out a whoop. "I'm going ashore!"
I had been dreaming, it seemed to me, since the beginning of time. Shapes moved and grew in the shadows of my mind. I felt vibrations through myself and out beyond. Movement, I dreamed of movement, sinking downwards, a slow dance. From utter cold, I warmed gradually as my dreams became more coherent. I dreamed I gathered myself, slowly, slowly.
I drifted down out of the mist, and I was awake.
The world danced around me. I had siblings! They were waking up wherever I looked, screaming and laughing. Some of them still drifted in sleep, buffeted by the shouts of the others. As I woke up further, I shouted, too. I wriggled my new body and stretched, elongating, until I started to tremble and collapsed back into roundness. I blew on my dust skirt and watched it swirl, and laughed.
A pair of twins babbled meaninglessly to each other, twinkling back and forth. They slid carelessly in my direction. I swam toward the middle of our group, knocking most of my skirt away with my clumsy flailing before I settled. I rested and watched.
All around us, between my siblings and beyond the dust, was the blackness of open space. We rolled through its dips and curves, warmed by our own bodies. Full-grown stars swam in the distance, impassive, unaware of us, shining far brighter than we could.
Nearby, more of my siblings were waking.
I joined the dance.
"Mountain?" the human whispered. Her voice was small amid the chirring of insects, the whistle of wind, the grumble of rocks shifting down my slope. But it was quiet in the tangle of tree roots where she clung, and I heard her clearly.
"Mountain," she said again. "I don't know if you're listening, but I'll talk to you anyway. I like talking to you. I wish you weren't so tall. But I like you, I always liked you, even though Mama never let me visit you before. She says you keep watch over us, and bring us the rain." She climbed as she talked, pulling herself up by the roots of the trees that grew from my soil. The trees were all asleep, and didn't notice her passage.
I had been sleeping, too, when she first started her climb. She'd woken me when she knocked a rock down a slope of scree, sending a shiver of gravel down my lower ridge. "Ah!" she'd said. "Sorry, Mountain."
Awake now, I focused on her, felt the tapping of her feet as she trudged upwards, her hands and knees on my steeper parts. I shifted my soil near her, spreading it to the air to hear her better.
"Mama says you give us our stream, too," she went on. "I like our stream. Yesterday, Ajj and I were swimming in the pool, in that little burbly part where the water is going really fast by the opening, and then it swirls a little ways into the pool, and we were in the swirl and just leaving it to swim into the real pool, where it's quiet, when Ajj just shrieked! I thought it was a rabbit getting hit by a hawk at first, but it was right next to me, and by the time I realized it was her she was already laughing about it. It was just a fish, kind of nibbling her leg, but without any teeth so it was really lipping her leg. I splashed her for scaring me and we had a splash fight." I heard her catch her breath as she topped a boulder to a flatter section. The small ones could move fast and easily, but even they needed to rest sometimes.
"We picked berries later. The sweetest ones are right next to the pool, if the sprites don't get them first. I would have brought you some berries, Mountain, if I'd thought of it. I thought there'd be berries up here. Maybe they're all by the stream." My stream was a cool flow down my sunset side, far from the south where she climbed.
"I thought I'd follow the stream up here, but Mama said it comes from way over there, and I could see it was turning away, so I left it. I don't think it goes to where I want to go."
I gave my skin a questioning pop a few feet from her, and a small rock bounced away. She didn't understand, only jumped a little and kept climbing. I wished I could make the same words that she used. For half my lifetime, I had listened to the humans as they scurried and chattered around my base, and I understood their language as completely as I understood the crows in my trees.
"You're not bringing us rain today, are you, Mountain?" she asked. "I know it's good, and I like rain, but it wouldn't be so good while I'm climbing. Mama's always telling me not to get caught in a thunderstorm." She jumped from a boulder to my soil. "You can keep sending those clouds over, just don't fill them with rain. Not today. Please, I mean. I meant to say please, really, Mountain. I just forgot for a little." She patted me with both hands. "I want to get there and back today."
Where are you going? I asked again, but this time she didn't even notice. If I spoke louder, I might hurt her, and I found I didn't want to do that. I settled down to wait in long-familiar patience.
She was quiet for a time, and I let my attention drift inward, to the trickle of water through my caverns. Only a few years ago, I had cracked a few rocks along the path to my center, letting the dripping of water there open into a thin flow. I let my thoughts enter that flow as it wound slowly through my bones of stone, until it reached a steep rock face, sheeting down in silence. I followed the water into the deep, still pool at my center, beneath a vault of air that echoed to the occasional splashes of fish. This was where I went to relax, to think, and to dream.
I floated, trying to sense the fish as they slid smoothly through the water, almost imperceptible. When the small human woke me with the fall of gravel, I had been napping for less than a year, just drifting up to wakefulness again. It had been a dream-nap, full of sunwarmth and scurrying small ones. I dreamed many koalas came to me and settled to live, but soon they had eaten most of the trees and swam away down the stream. I spread myself back out to my skin and checked my forests. They all seemed healthy. It was a dream that came from my thoughts, then, not one that came from outside.
On my peak, the rocks were scarred and shifted where a phoenix had rested from one of its long flights. I wondered why it hadn't woken me. I always enjoyed talking with them; they were among the cleverest and the longest-lived of the small ones. They lived long enough to learn my language, and it was from them that I learned most of what I understood about the small ones. Most small ones, said the phoenix, especially the ones that lived on the surface, had a sense called sight. They weren't limited to what their skin touched, or the sounds that came to them – they could look up into the sky and see the silent clouds, which drifted by even when they withheld their rain and thunder. They could even see thunder – the phoenix said it made a flash as sharp and bright as its sting.
Sometimes I wished I could be a small one, just for a time, to move and talk and see. Sometimes I wondered if the small ones ever envied me, and the stillness of inner stones and thoughts that they lacked. I also wondered, though, if they realized what it was like to be anything other than a small one. They never spoke with the phoenix.
On my skin, the soft patter of the human's footsteps stopped. I focused on her again. She was standing on my south cliff, a bare jut of stone that reached above the trees. I felt her jump up and down.
"Mountain, I can see it!" she said. "I thought I could! It's right down there, past the huts. We built it a long time ago, but it was only yesterday that the firebird came. It lit up last night, but you can't see it from the huts, not really, the perch is too high. From here it'll be perfect. Can you see it, Mountain?"
I couldn't reply out loud without disturbing her, but inside I chuckled.
"The sun's just going down," she said. I had felt my sunrise side growing cooler. "This is when it'll light up. Mama says –" She gasped. "There it is! I don't know if you're watching, Mountain, but it's all on fire, and it's dancing with its wings. I wish I could hear it singing, but that doesn't matter. I like just seeing it." She edged closer, where my cliff dropped off into air. I felt a tug on a vine that grew from a crack in my stones – she was holding on to it for security.
My soil had been loosened by a recent rain. The vine was mindless, and neither knew nor cared when its roots pulled free. As soon as I felt it move, slipping up like a snake between my stones, I clenched the crack closed and caught its end. But by then, she had already let go, and was stumbling over the lip of the cliff into open air.
There are many, many small ones that live and scurry on my skin. I try not to hurt them, but for the most part, I don't affect them one way or the other. They live their lives, I live mine. The phoenix are the only ones I pay close attention to.
But I had felt this human climb most of the way up my side. I had listened to her chatter and tried to respond. She was part of my thoughts, now, and it was without any thought at all that I bent myself to catch her as she fell.
Straight below her was a hard shelf of stone. I flicked it outward and away, opening space where it had been. Listening to her screams, which told me where she was, I heaved myself up underneath her and sank back down as she landed, rolling her down a slope of soil from which I popped out rocks and pulled trees aside. Finally, as she slowed, she grabbed one of the trees and clung to it. The tree had slept through everything and didn't respond.
The last of the rocks I had thrown aside crashed down again. Other small ones had chittered and fled. I eased the trees back into place and resettled myself around their roots. The human was dripping on me, but I was glad to taste the salt of tears rather than the tang of blood.
She moved eventually. "Mama's going to scold," she said. She stretched out on my soil and hugged me. "Thank you, Mountain."
I hollowed a little underneath her and squeezed her very gently in return. She sniffed and laughed. "Tomorrow I'll bring you something." She stood up and started downward. She was almost at my base. "Mama says uncle says you like water from the other river, with floating flowers. Um, make a rock move if that's right?"
I always enjoyed a taste of another river. I jiggled a rock loose a ways in front of her.
"Good," she said. "Bye now. Mama will be worrying." Her footsteps faded as my soil mixed with that around me, and she was gone.
High on my peak, a solid heat landed on my rocks and whistled a musical greeting. The phoenix had returned from its evening song. I rumbled a welcome.
We had much to talk about.
The rabbit burst from cover almost underhoof, startling Ashiekh into taking off after it. Reaching for his bow out of habit, he remembered just in time that he wasn't hunting today. He slowed and watched the rabbit flick out of sight through the dense grass.
He grunted in annoyance. Maybe he should have shot after all. If he did have meat tonight, who would know? He hadn't wanted to come on this namequest in the first place, let alone follow the rules.
He turned away. The sun was sinking in the sky behind him, spreading a red light over everything. Off to the left, the Bones cast long shadows onto the trees behind them. He hadn't wanted to come, but here he was, and he might as well go through with it without cheating.
He trotted through the grass to his camp, well within sight of the Bones but farther along the forest edge. His fire was still banked on the tall mound of earth and stones, built by other centaurs who had come to the Bones to find their name. He set his useless bow and arrows down nearby, and grimaced.
"Too old," he muttered to himself. "Ridiculous. I'm not old at all. Why should centaurs find names when they're hardly more than foals? I don't see the sense in it."
Noezi Tracks-the-Sun, leader of the herd, had not agreed. "Ashiekh, Ashiekh, Ashiekh," she had said, shaking her head. "What a name. It isn't even a name, it is only something to call you. All the other young ones have found their names long ago. Some have even outgrown their first one, and found another. And you?" She snorted. "You stay here, hunting and talking and passing the days, with what seems to be no urge to find your name so that you can start living."
Ashiekh flushed. "I am living," he protested. "Hunting, talking, grazing – those count as much as anything. Why do I need a name for any of that? Something to call me – that's all people need. And they have that. It works just fine."
"You are too old to be satisfied with that." Tracks-the-Sun put her hands on her hips. "Have you no sense of curiosity? You've never even seen the Bones."
He shifted his feet, avoiding her gaze. "Almost every day, the herd moves somewhere else, and I see new places and things. Rivers, and forests, and living creatures, much more interesting than old dead bones that we don't even know who or what they're from."
She sighed. "It isn't the same," she told him. "The Bones have a magic of their own. If you'd ever been there, you'd know that." She looked him up and down. "But you haven't, and it doesn't look like you're going to without a bit of a push. There's no good talking any more about it. You, my boy, are going on a namequest. Consider it the will of the herd." She wheeled and cantered away, leaving Ashiekh to stamp the ground in frustration.
And now he was here, whether he liked it or not. Almost at the Bones.
When it was full dark, Ashiekh stood staring into his fire, chewing on a handful of grass. It was the only food eaten by questers when they were this close to the Bones. Anything else was said to dull the senses and make the mind less open to the Bones' magic. He wasn't sure he wanted to be open to the Bones' magic, but he had come this far, after all. The journey here had taken only a day, which he supposed was lucky. Sometimes the herd was grazing many days distant from the Bones when a centaur traveled to them for a namequest. Still, it was longer than he had ever spent alone before. Even at night, he was used to hearing the quiet stamps and whispers of the herd around him.
Despite that, when he knocked the fire down and closed his eyes, he fell asleep quickly.
He was woken by the dawn. This day was mostly something to wait through, for the night to come. The Bones, he knew, worked their strongest magic in dreams and in dark. "You have weird dreams, and you just know," one of the other centaurs had said after returning from the Bones. Ashiekh had no memory of what he dreamed last night, but that night didn't count. He hoped he would remember his dreams among the Bones.
Although it was the nighttime that mattered most, part of a namequest was spending the day by the Bones, and so in the early morning he walked over to them and settled to wait. Smooth pale mounds lay scattered around the remnants of the ribcage, sharp rods curving out at angles, twice as tall as his head. They almost seemed to poke the clouds drifting across the sky.
Throughout the day, as he grazed and paced around the Bones, he thought about his name. He was finding it more peaceful to be alone than he had expected, with just the clouds and the wind in the grass and the ripple of the water in the forest stream when he refilled his water skins. Maybe his name would be something like that. Likes-Peace? He shook his head at himself. That was ridiculous. Watches-Clouds? Sits-by-Water?
Some young centaurs, when they went on a namequest, already had their name in mind and only needed it confirmed. Some had vague ideas, or formed them during the journey or the day of waiting. Others, like him, didn't know until they dreamed.
After the sun went down that evening, he walked nervously into the center of the ribcage. Four of the moons were up. Giza Lights-the-Night cast a cold, pale violet glow over everything, a stark light in which Ashiekh could see the Bones looming around him, with the forest a dark mass behind. He shivered, although it was warm. Half the ribs were lit up sharp and bright, the rest black spikes of shadow.
He shifted his weight restlessly. He didn't think he was likely to fall asleep, but he bowed his head and let his mind drift, and after a time, his thoughts slipped into dreams.
He dreamed of moons chasing him across the sky, of grass taller than he was. A rabbit bounded out of it to cock its head and look at him. "What's your name?" it asked him, its ears twitching.
"I don't know," said Ashiekh, struggling to push through the grass.
He heard mocking laughter, and a wood sprite sprang into view. "He has no name yet, fool," it said to the rabbit. "That's why he's here." It turned to stare at Ashiekh. "This is your name." He waved his hand. The surroundings changed, and changed again. The wind chased shimmers of light across the plains, dusk spread through the trees of a forest, the herd traveled steadily to new grazing grounds. Fish flickered through a gurgling stream, and foals chanted as they learned the stamp-song. A dragonfly flew by, lazily turning circles.
"Do you see your name?" it whispered.
Ashiekh found himself standing at the top of a cliff, staring down at the dream images. The sun, the moons, himself aiming his bow to shoot, growling thunder and lightning that flashed through a downpour of rain. "No," he said.
"Ah. How strange." The dragonfly twirled in midair and landed on his ear, tickling him. "It's right there in front of you."
Then, all at once, he was awake. A pale light shone in strips before him. He blinked, and it became the rising sun behind the tall pillars of the ribs.
He rubbed his eyes in disbelief. It was morning. But he still didn't know his name.
His dreams tumbled through his mind, each image more confusing than the last. The dragonfly, the rabbit, the wood sprite... none of them had actually said what his name was. It was as much a puzzle as when he first came.
What had gone wrong? A centaur always came back from the Bones with a new name. Had he missed something in his dreams?
He paced to one of the ribs and rested his forehead against it, thinking.
Then he realized. Of course a centaur always came back with a name – they were thinking about it even before they left the herd. "This is your name," their dream told them, and eager to agree, they decided that they saw their truest self in one of the images. That was all there was to it.
The only reason he still didn't know his name was because he didn't want to.
Ashiekh grinned. Then he chuckled, the sound rolling louder and louder through the Bones until he threw back his head and roared with laughter. He spun and broke into a gallop, back towards the herd.
When he reached them late that afternoon, he told Noezi Tracks-the-Sun what had happened. After staring at him for a few moments, she snorted and shook her head.
"Since you seem to need no name," she said, "we might as well call you that."
And Ashiekh Needs-No-Name did not choose to return to the Bones for a long, long time.