From the Crossing River there were two main routes we could take to reach Grislander’s Maw. The Upper Path would take us deeper into the Folds, the high rolling hills that got more bunched together the closer you went to the true foothills of the Root Mountains. The chance for both Pickers and good game increased in that region, but it was a gamble we often took as the tribe could more easily transverse along the hills’ spines and the size of our tribe normally intimidated the less ambitious of the Picker bands. For any desperate Pickers we came across it wouldn’t matter which route we took. After the Folds, we would skirt around the forest blanketing the foothills and Root Mountains until we reached Grislander’s Maw. We had gone that way for the past two runs. The Lower Path would take us through the long, sheer, twisting ravines called Flickermark because the flicker of the stars was the only way to truly mark your way. As such, night travel was required and that made everyone more irritable for the first few nights as they adjusted to the new schedule. The chance for ambush severely declined there, but the chance for accidents rose and, while there was game to hunt and help sustain our stores, it was typically faster and harder to kill than the animals in the Folds. Once we left Flickermark, we would have to skirt around the Statue Garden, but then it was a relatively short distance to Grislander’s Maw. Ghani and Fenris made the joint decision that we wouldn’t risk taking the same route three times in a row, but instead travel along the Lower Path.
We followed the Crossing River southeast for the rest of day and camped along its edge that night. The next morning turned sour when Rawley beckoned the other lone huntress apprentice over. Within a few minutes I was saddled with Fellen and informed that we would be scouting together. Nole was under strict orders from Levain to keep a close perimeter to the tribe for the day, in case her injuries acted up, and when it came to matters of healing Levain was listened to. That left Nole’s contributions to scouting and hunting almost inconsequential as anything she spotted would be nearly upon the tribe and the Pack would already be aware of it, and most of the game would be scared off by the sounds of the tribe’s passage, but she refused to feel useless. Rawley and the other huntresses had to make up the slack and wouldn’t have time to train Nole’s apprentice, Fellen, and me, so we were lumped together and told to practice our scouting skills close to the tribe.
We pretended to ignore each other for the first hour as we followed the river bank and snuck glares at each other. She never caught me, but I caught her gaze a couple of times and narrowed my eyes at her until she looked away. There was no interesting dynamics to spy on in the tribe as it was a fuzzy mob some distance in front of us, so I found another way to occupy myself. As we walked I made notes in my mind about the different things I noticed about the other girl and how I could use those things in the future. As Rawley liked to point out, proper preparation could be the difference between success and failure. The first thing I made a mental note of was the way Fellen repeatedly touched the sling on her belt as if she had to keep reassuring herself that it hadn’t fallen off. Another thing was that her glares often shifted to my healer’s beads before she’d deliberately focus on the river to our right, the hills to our left, or the puffy clouds and blue sky above. Her dress fit her properly and only had a few patches decorating the skirt. She wasn’t very good at walking quietly, for all that we were supposed to be scouting, and when I kicked a pebble into the river to see what she’d do, she jumped.
I crossed my arms. “Afraid to be alone with the healer’s girl?”
“No!” I smirked at her defensive answer. “I just don’t feel like talking to you.”
“Think you might hurl if you open that big mouth of yours?”
“Shut up! I ate something bad yesterday. I’m not going to throw up.”
Yes, you did, because I wanted you to. “Nobody else got sick. You must have a sensitive stomach. Does your mentor have to taste test everything to make sure it doesn’t upset your poor, baby stomach?”
Fellen stopped walking and whirled to face me, hands clenched into fists. “I’m not a baby!”
I flicked my gaze up and down her, once. “Could’ve fooled me.” And then I kept walking, deliberately showing her my back. I felt her eyes bore into me, before she ran up to my side, huffing and puffing indigently.
“You don’t get to do that! You’re just some life-ridden, shut-in healer’s daughter playing at being a huntress. You’re a fluke and a mistake, and everyone knows that your mother hates you!”
My plan to ignore her was momentarily flung aside as I bit out, “I don’t have a mother.”
Fellen flinched back before rallying. “Because she abandoned you! My mother said that you must really be a worthless little girl if even the healer doesn’t want you.”
I punched her in face.
Put all of my weight behind it, twisted around, and felt my knuckles connect with her temple. She fell to the ground, and it took all of my strength to remain somewhat disciplined, not follow her to the ground, scratching and screaming. Still, self-disgust flooded through me—sickening and feverish hot—as I realized how easily I had simply reacted without thought. I needed to regain control. And if Fellen was going to hate me for punching her, I might as well retaliate with something that I had decided to do to hurt her. I waited for her to look up, clutching at her face, and met her glare for glare, though hers was more hot and wet with angry tears while I could feel the cold crackling from mine. “You’re a worthless little huntress without your sling.”
And I reached down, ripped her sling from her belt, and threw it in the river. Her scream grew in volume as the current caught the sling and pulled it under. “No!”
Her scream also caught the attention of the tribe, and I watched as, after a couple moments, a single blur broke off of from the rest and headed towards us. As it got closer, I saw that it was one of the Pack. I didn’t bother trying to come up with an excuse, nor was I under any illusion who would bear the brunt of the blame for the incident as Fellen got up and ran toward the huntress, cheek reddening and eyes streaming.
I could hear the other girl babbling now. “She-she picked a fight for no reason, and I did my best to ignore her, but she was j-just so mean. So I defended myself and she punched me out of nowhere before throwing my sling into the river! I didn’t do anything to her!”
The huntress strode up to me, Fellen hiding slightly behind her while looking smug, defiant, and terrified. I clenched my hand into a fist before quickly relaxing it and Fellen dropped back. The huntress didn’t miss the gesture. “So it’s true then?”
I challenged her. “Which part?”
She boxed me across the ear, and it was my turn to fall to the ground, head ringing. She grabbed me by the scruff of my dress and forced me to get back up and walk in front of her before I recovered. “We’re going back to the tribe where your mentor can come up with a fit punishment for you when she gets back from scouting. You’re lucky you aren’t in the Pack, girl, or Fenris would make you carry stones until your hands bleed.”
Once we caught back up with the tribe the Pack huntress told her understanding of what had happened. I could clearly see the ripples as it spread through the tribe. Sympathetic looks and words of comfort were given to Fellen and she was quickly swallowed up by the crowd, to receive treatment from Levain and bring the healer down a peg. Not that Levain would let anything I did affect her now. Dirty looks of condemnation were shot my way and whispers of “troublemaker” and “arrogant” and “doesn’t know her place” buzzed through the tribe.
The huntress kept a firm grip on my dress and promised theoretical punishments until the tribe cleared a path for Grandmother as she made her way back to us. She gave me a long look, similar to the one Levain had given me when she was deciding if I was worth saving or not, but Grandmother’s look had more thoughtfulness than calculation behind it.
“She’ll join me until Rawley gets back. I am her guardian, after all.” Grandmother commanded I walk over to her with a gesture and the huntress let me go. I followed the command and then we made our way near to the front of the traveling column.
Even there, with only a few people to our front and sides, including Old Lily and the other wards, traveling with the tribe was stifling and uncomfortable. Claustrophobic. But any opportunity to get away was denied to me, just as it had been when I traveled Levain, Father, and the twins. Only scouts were allowed to leave the protective perimeter of the Pack and I had squandered that opportunity in only a few days.
“You aren’t doing yourself any favors, child.” Grandmother gave me a sidelong disapproving look.
“I’m not stupid!”
Her eyebrows rose a fraction. “You might not be, but your pride is. What did the other girl do that pricked it so badly?”
I crossed my arms again. “I don’t need your pity.”
She scoffed, “Then don’t do idiotic things that invoke it.” The thoughtful look came back. “I didn’t peg you as the fighting type, not with fists anyway.”
I scowled at the ground. “Words would have taken too long to get my point across.”
Grandmother snorted. The conversation fell away then and the sounds of the tribe filled the air between us. Sheep baaing, the clop of the reindeers’ feet, the chatter of multiple conversations, and occasional whistle as the Pack communicated with each other. Other children laughed and played as they wove around the adults’ feet with the camp dogs. The wards and Old Lily seemed engrossed in a game of word association. Once again all I could do was keep my back straight, keep walking, and pretend like space between me and everyone else didn’t matter one bit. I didn’t even have any new training to focus on. I kept myself occupied at first by running through everything Rawley had taught me about different hunting techniques and the habits of animals and how to keep track of your location while traveling. After that, I reached back and went over the plants and their uses that Levain had taught me, the techniques used to treat different wounds and injuries, how to help pregnant women or those who didn’t want to be, how to poison or provide relief. I had just started running through the different stories and myths she had taught me, the things she thought I would need to know as a whisper woman, when Rawley returned to give her report and drop off a string of rabbits.
The moment when Ghani gestured to me through the people separating us, informing Rawley of what had happened, and my mentor’s gaze cut to me was unmistakable. Rawley nodded and clasped Ghani’s arm in thanks for a moment before striding over to me and Grandmother.
I didn’t like how gentle her voice was when she spoke. “I don’t have time to discuss your fight with you now, but we will go over it after we make camp tonight. Grandmother, will you keep an eye on her until then?”
Grandmother waved her off. “Go scout. I still have my own things to discuss with her.”
Rawley thanked her, nodded at me, and left the tribe to go scout the hills behind us. I waited for Grandmother to speak, but she didn’t say anything. I could feel her eyes on me though as we moved forward with the tribe. Steady and blunt and considering, as if I posed a question she still hadn’t figured out. I debated over trying to wait her out, but it didn’t take much insight to realize that she could give Rawley a run when it came to patience. Blood speakers didn’t come into their role quickly.
“I know why your mother taught you the healing craft, but why do you cling to it when you know it doesn’t do you any favors?”
The question was an accusation that instantly put me on alert, defensive. “I’m not cutting off my beads.”
Grandmother clicked her tongue. “But that doesn’t answer my question, eh, does it, child?”
Tension thrummed through my back and shoulders. It was also a question I didn’t know how to answer. “Why do you need to know?”
She looked askance at me and presented me with a threat instead of her own answer. “I could bleed you every night for the ritual, give my more respectful wards a deserved break.” She paused, waited a beat before adding, “After all, it’s not like you could die from it.”
I wanted to freeze, stop walking, or run away even as I hated myself for the impulse. I didn’t want to be that type of person—a coward. But she knew. I had thought that she might, given different barbed comments she had made over the past few months, but this time she might as well as have announced it. And it was one thing to contemplate the idea that she might know about my blessing, if it could be called that, and a whole other thing to be confronted with the fact that she did.
Grandmother didn’t give me the chance to act on any of my impulses. Instead, she gripped me by the elbow and kept me moving forward with the tribe. “Of course I knew, child. Don’t act so shocked. Your mother has never been the best liar, for all of her plotting and ambition, and I had no other reason to take in a non-soul bent child with surviving parents. But the life in you? That needed to be balanced out.” She pulled me close to whisper in my ear. “Be grateful that I recognize the blasphemy and idiocy it would be to burn you.” Grandmother stepped away and let go of me. “Don’t be so proud that you deny a well meaning old woman her questions, child.” She caught my gaze and demanded, “Why?”
My mouth wouldn’t work. I knew I needed to answer her, but my mouth wouldn’t work. It was as if someone had shoved it full of stone dust and ice. This wasn’t how the day was supposed to go. Words, I needed words. I forced my mouth open, tongue thick, not even sure what I was going to say, not sure I could say anything at all.
A faint look of disgust crossed Grandmother’s face. “Not even children should stoop to pleading. Perhaps the goddess was right to give you the blessing she did.”
Weak. I was being weak after I vowed to never be in such a sorry state again. That realization, more than anything, snapped me out of my panic. But I was still riding high on the nerves and confusion, the energy of the emotion. Everything felt brittle and over bright, like it had when Levain abandoned me, and another realization struck me—this was happening because I was clinging to something useless again, something from Mother. It wasn’t mine, not really, not fully; wasn’t something I would need to reach that place where no one could touch me. I could make due without the beads, plenty of other people did. I was holding myself back when I should have gotten rid of them when I burned everything else in the sack. I had to remember that I couldn’t be me, couldn’t be a healer’s daughter, if I wanted to become one of the goddess’s chosen.
This whole conversation had started with the healer’s beads.
No other conversations could start like that if I didn’t have them.
I strode forward a few steps and rounded on Grandmother to block her way, staring her dead in the eyes. I gripped the braided pieces of hair that kept my healer’s beads in place and ignored the familiar way they clinked together as I ripped my eating knife from its place on my belt. “You want to know why I’m clinging to these useless things? I’m not.”
Then I sawed through my hair with the knife until I held two raggedly cut braids, two healer’s beads each—berry red and ocre, moss green and bone white—in my hand. I threw them at her and turned and ran before I saw if she caught them or not. People yelled and tried to grab me, but I dodged and didn’t care anymore that I wasn’t supposed to leave the traveling column.
All I knew, all I cared about, was that I couldn’t be in Grandmother’s presence for one moment longer. So I ran and Rawley’s lessons in dodging served me well.
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Bio: I'm a typical writer who loves reading and writing fantasy stories. Romance often gets mixed in as well, but we'll see if that happens with my current work in progress. I decided to post what I'm working on here to help me keep writing consistently.