5) I Break My Spirit, and Don't Feel so Well

The morning was windy and chill, but a balm sweetened the air and heralded the arrival of milder days. Stars shone in the west, faint in the green. The birds flew in front of me, and the wind flew behind. It moved through my brothers with such a roar I feared they would be blown asunder, and I started into a run.

The hill swam with mist. Its foot was strewn with gigantic granite stones, grey-green and starry as the rim of the sky. The only stone still standing was rosy gneiss, brought to that place time out of mind to mark the wheeling of stars.

It jutted from the side of the hill like the last tooth in an ancient gum. "Old Mother's Snaggletooth," I had heard someone call it, and I wondered if Old Mother was the earth, or a giant saebel under the ground. "Excuse me, Mother," I said on my way up.

The hill was bald, and eons of wind had stripped the west side to mostly rock. I kept to that side––the red stone was to the east, and I feared it.

I found them near the crown, growing among the stones in a circle: bright blue gentians and tiny saxifrage, columbine, nettle, and wood sorrel. They had each a blood-red throat.

I stood still, sweat running down my nose. I had no right to disturb them, couldn't believe I was looking at them––a spirit wants never to be examined.

My brothers gathered near my feet, nipping at each other, Floy standing a little to the side. The standing stones glowered up at us, a disapproving jury come to witness my blasphemy. My hands shook. The sun reached the hill, and light fell through the boys.

Wind blew into my back, lifting my skirts. A great gust rocked the trees. The birds shook and wavered; I reached for them as they vanished, and dove into the circle, bloodying my knees.

I broke stems and roots, and the wind changed to wings, a flurry of them falling round my shoulders. I reached the nettles last, and the spines sank into my forearms, palms. And then it happened.

My lungs blew from my mouth, or so it felt. A flaming rope stretched out from my chest, thin and brittle, unraveling, twisting, and breaking until only a string stretched taut.

I lay down, chest afire with pain. Ice followed the fire and spread through me, dulling the hurt. My senses heightened so that I could hear the new grass struggling to stand beneath me. And they were nearby, still birds, still yoked to my wish.

"I think the bell flowers were mine," one of them said. "Reyna must be the nettles."

"What feels different? I can't put my finger on it."

"Won't put your finger on anything for a while, Tem."

"Beasts act on instinct, and people on obligation and ration, and I'm thinking rationally enough––"

"Stop hurting my head."

"––but I wonder if presently we'll lose all idea of words and have to resort to base––"

I lifted my head. Tem, Mordan, Arin, and Leode had ceased to fade, but only Mordan the raven was comfortable in a black suit. Leode could have been a pigeon, but Arin and Tem looked ridiculous. Floy sat before me, just as she had been.

"Corps' eyes from a tomb in Tinop." The white at her throat leapt. "Broken anything?"

"I'm talking to a sparrow." I got to my feet and touched a scraped knee. "I'm talking to a sparrow." I wasn't doing it consciously. The morphemes organized themselves like clockwork in my mouth, as well as in my fingers and eyes. "Was this supposed to happen?"

"Don't know," said Mordan. They gathered around me, feathers moving in the wind, looking ready to dissolve at a touch.

"May I?" I asked Tem. I sank my fingers into his plumage and closed my eyes.

"Let's go away from this place." Tem stepped away from me and folded in his neck.

I gathered up the scraps of our Marione and crept down through columns of shadow. Most of them took flight, but not so high we couldn't continue talking.

Tem said, "How do you suppose she found us?" We all knew he was talking about the Queen.

"They're likely both dead," said Floy, referring to Biador and Nilsa.

"And how'd they get the chance?" said Mordan. "Living out here, never leaving. Leastways, we never saw them leave."

We were quiet for a while. Then Arin suggested Master Tippelain, our tutor, who had tried to teach to me real dances, poetry, music, and how to sit up straight. I wasn't fond of him.

"No," said Tem. "He was one of Father's oldest friends. Nilsa, though––"

"What about big, slow Dwithy," said Arin. "Came on the cart every month? Brought us food and clothes. Had a face puckered like a cat's arse––"

"He was simple," said Mordan.

"Maybe he only acted simple."

"Only you act simple, Arin. It was probably Hal. He was given the boot, after all."

I could feel Tem readying a reply, but whatever it was he kept it silent.

My stomach growled, but there was no food, and I didn't much feel like eating anything. I doggedly walked forward, making for the river. When I tripped over a root, I stopped, and thought of sitting down to have another cry. "Where am I going?" I said.

"Don't worry so," said Tem, but he was worried.

Liskara hadn't strayed far. I unbuckled a saddlebag full of provisions that Mordan assured me I would be unhappy without. I put it on the ground, and the horse sneezed at me.

"You needn't ask," I said. "Wherever you go, someone will take care of you." I put the Marione at the bottom of the saddlebag, and studied Father's ring. Silver, with a green stone cut like a wild rose.

I untied a blanket from the saddle and sat down in the sun next to the river. I rubbed my dirty arms all over the blanket, wrapped it around me, and yawned hugely.

When I woke, the stars shone, and a sliver of waxing moon. Leode roosted in an oak, his beak in his breast. The others spoke softly with their heads together, and I closed my eyes, heard my name, and turned on my side to listen.

"She'll starve to death, or freeze."

"We'll find her a place before winter. A farm."

"Ha! Farming?"

"Not as though she's never dug up a turnip for Biador."

"You can hardly compare a kitchen garden to a field––"

"It's not so difficult––you've just never done it before."

"Watch it. Raven's bigger than a sparrow."

"I can fly faster."

"You're just a pot girl."

"Where, though?" the egret cut in. "We're in the middle of the wild."

"There's a village north of here," said the swan. "Up the road, Hal said once."

"We'll fly that way tomorrow."

"Reyna can't fly."

I sat up at this. "I can walk."

Suddenly hungry, I rummaged through the saddlebag and found a piece of bread stuffed with salted pork. I ate it slowly.

"Once she's established herself somewhere," said Tem, "we'll scout out the country."

"Maybe Floy and Mordan," I said. "But how's a black egret going to scout out anything?"

"Go back to sleep," Tem said.

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"Mordan," I said the next morning, "I still know who I am and what I am and where I am."

He told me this was good evidence that I was still sane.

He, Floy, and I walked up the road, or rather, they flew from tree to tree and I walked. We'd forgotten to tie Liskara the night before, and when I woke she was gone. The others hadn't come along. I refused to take a step towards civilization with black egrets, swans and doves.

"Why should I not be crazy?" I stopped and looked up at him. "I've pulled my Marionin. I'm not dead––why shouldn't I be crazy?"

"I don't know. Maybe you are. All the more reason to do exactly as I say."

"That'll go over smoothly," Floy said.

All the morning I listened to the arguments and jeers pouring from the trees: sounds I'd never thought more than birdsong.

Around midday we stopped for a rest in a hollow dark with pines. I should have known better, been more wary––the place felt old, resentful as a receding glacier. Such places were often thick with saebels, but I sat thoughtlessly upon a boulder jutting out from a little stream. **'Saebel' is Simarghl for 'no soul.' Saebels bear very little resemblance to the sable––a ferret-like creature that lives in Russia––and are in fact more like insane, flesh-eating fairies.**

The boulder flung arms of shingle from the ice. I leapt up quick as a snake.

He dislodged his bulk from the stream and the water gnawed into my feet. He towered over me, a mammoth cairn. His eyes were blue-black tunnels, and his teeth ground together like a lake in midwinter: Does warm heart care to know what it feels like to be sat on?

"N-no," I sputtered.

Does she taste nice? Her haunches were tender. We are hungry after our sleep, always hungry.

I thought of tumbling around his belly, and dumped the food from the saddlebag at his feet. Mordan cackled so hard he threatened to fall out of his yew. The saebel ate all my bread and salt pork, then he gave a burp like an avalanche, clamped himself over the stream, and went back to sleep.

Mordan was still laughing.

"You big tit." I rubbed my cold feet. "A rock ate all my food."

"Let's keep to the road," said Floy. "The monsters don't like ways and roads. And there's food up the road."

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The road scarcely hinted at food. It climbed all day, and became slick with a ceaseless, miserable drizzle. My brothers and I had sometimes played at being travelers, journeying as far as we dared on the deer paths, always with sausage and cheese, and heading back as soon as it was eaten. This was the real road, though. I hadn't sausage or cheese, and I half expected a city, or at least a soft, green country beyond the first rise to the north. I neared the top, walked up a stair broken up by juniper roots, and stopped short in dismay.

Black mountains rolled away on all sides, fading to blue on the horizon. The road wound down and disappeared into a muddle of pines, crumbling towers, and old walls keeping nothing out and leading nowhere.

As I slogged on, the day waned and the drizzle clouded my view, and I kept to the middle of the path.

"Do you suppose," I remember grumbling to Floy, "that this village is one of those that appear for a day and then fade into the mist for another thousand years?"

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As the last of the light fled west I smelled the tang of smoke. My heart lifted.

Farther up the road light came from windows in the mountain's very arm. There was a fortress of some sort, atop the arm's nub and long fallen into ruin. Some of the stones had been rebuilt into the second story of a bulding. The first story was dug out from the hillside.

A lantern hung on a post, sputtering in the rain––a welcoming sound. The rest of the village twinkled below, and I gave a sigh of relief, and walked quickly forward for fear the place would be swallowed by mist before I reached the door.

"Wait a moment," called Mordan. "There're people down there."