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.