Content warning: War PTSD, suicide ideation
The fingers of the dead scraped along the bottom of the skiff: brittle, dull taps that could’ve almost—almost—been sticks were this any other lake. Behind Teiz’s spot near the prow, water splished in time with Gapo’s oar-strokes. A fat-bellied glass lantern lit their course, the light glinting off the ripples in the skiff’s wake like hundreds of thin, lazy snakes gliding away on the water.
Ahead, the island of the Trial loomed, a black splotch in the deep gray of the early predawn gloom, made yet more gray by the fog rising off the lake’s surface. Bukuras called to each other from either bank; the chittering-tweets sounded muffled, distant. Teiz breathed in the green, thick smell of stagnant lake underscored with the faint tinge of rot and mulch and that crisp, metallic whiff of magic.
His stomach roiled. Cramped, as if he’d been skewered through the gut but without the pain. The smell twisted on him, went from rot to decay, from mulch to blood. Blood and mud, caked under his fingernails, up his nose, down his throat, his sword-arm cramping and aching, his hand numb from the impact jarring through it. Up and down, up and down, over and over and over, and that empty calm inside, that space beyond never-ending terror. Everything dripped with the stench of magic, always magic, and of burning hair and flesh and—
He swallowed, unset his clenched teeth. Focused on his next breath, then the next. Mentally ran through the steps of the Bowing Crane and uncurled his grip on the hilt of his long knife, finger by finger. Rested them instead on his knees and the rough fabric of his loose robe, and kneaded at the rippling scars along the side of his left leg. The inside of his arm bumped against the ridge of the tooled leather golden dancer’s belt around his waist. His grandmother’s. His sister had insisted he wear it. For luck. For strength. For a sick joke. Hah.
One dance. One Trial. That’s all they had asked of him. Didn’t matter that one was synonymous with both only and last. He was nothing but a justifiable loss, sacrificed to buy the Weiza another year.
Something cold and bony poked his shoulder. Teiz flinched.
“Teiz?” Molanwi’s voice—old, warm, and weathered—brushed near his ear. She would be his olabasu for the Trial, the only ola-player left in all four villages over the age of fifteen and, even then, not a traditionally trained one; her skill with a bow came from thirty-eight years wedded to the previous olabasu. Her husband was four years dead now. Dead like most of Teiz’s generation but, unlike them, resting somewhere under the lake’s water. “Breathe, boy. You’re doing that tensing-thing again.”
Teiz shrugged out from under her hand. “I’m fine.”
Molanwi exhaled. Could’ve been a sigh, could’ve simply been a deep breath. “So you keep saying.”
Teiz kept his gaze on their destination and tapped out the moments against his knees with his fingertips. The seat creaked as Molanwi sat back with a soft hm.
The skiff cut across the lake in what had to be half the time it should have. The dead marked their passing: a tap, a knock, a scrape. Generations of Weiza, going back as far as memory, rested here. Most sunk deep in the silt and sand of the lake bottom but some reached for the surface denied to them. Waiting with bated hunger for the appeasement of the living.
Waiting for the dance.
As a child, he’d believed magic—and death—couldn’t reach past the surface unless the rites released it. That it had rules, simple and crisp. Dance with the dead, appease the lake, gain protection for the Weiza, and become that year’s golden dancer. Years of preparation went into it, of learning and practice and sweat, and the marrow-deep belief that the effort alone would guarantee perfection.
Child-him had been such a gullible fool. Magic was arbitrary. Death didn’t care—not about your value, your effort, your sweat. He’d seen enough of that on the blasted fields of distant Adra, fighting in the name of the Centrenian Republic which had claimed the Weiza as part of their sprawling territory back in Teiz’s grandparents’ day.
The Centrenians had made magic bow to mortals. Not leashed and chained, but brought entirely to heel, then turned it around and slung it at the enemy lines. And the enemy—this time, the ever-eastward-marching city-state of Kovyaar—had slung it right back. With a cold disregard for battle lines and allegiances, it split and blew soldiers to pieces, boiled the earth beneath their feet, drowned them with air turned to viscous soup. Reduced their tattered, half-melted corpses down to ash to fuel the next onslaught. Or raised them up to turn on their fellows.
If a Kovyaar conjuror were to come here to this lake, it’d be the work of a moment to break the lake’s magic, unleash a legion of the dead on Teiz’s little village the same way they’d done to the Centrenian forces with the Centrenian’s own dead. Gods, a Centrenian conjuror could do the same. A flick of the fingers and some arcane twist of power would turn the blade-thin boundary between the living and the dead to so much magical dust.
It’d be worse than Adra. There, you’d get a walking corpse or two, sometimes squads of five but always within a few paces of their conjuror. Kill the conjuror, and the corpses would drop. Here, with a lake filled with thousands of Weiza dead, already made restless and, supposedly, semi-aware by the lake’s wild magic, it’d be a matter of repurposing, not creating.
Such a legion would march over the whole of his village in less time than it took him to limp across it. The old folks would hold the line, give the children a chance to run. For a time. And not a very long one, either. They’d fall, and Teiz would…
That could go either way. Fight, and die. Try to run, fail, and die. Only this time, there’d be no dissolution hex to blow a hole through his leg, no convenient ravine to hide in, no limping away to live a life he didn’t deserve. In his little conscious nightmare, he let himself be a hero in truth—not the twice-cursed lie he was now. Gave himself a sword, gave himself some courage, wiped away that lingering terror of pain that nearly dying had left him with.
This time, he’d make sure they killed him. With any luck it’d be…not painless, that was too much to ask, but maybe quick. Yes, he’d settle for quick. But if nothing else, it would be sure.
Though the thinking-part of him knew it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference, the gods didn’t care if he lived or died, the dark, raw, aching part insisted it’d set things right. Make the world the way it was supposed to be. And if he died for good purpose—well, then. Good.
Gapo let them off at the lone, rickety pier jutting out from the island’s bank. The skiff bumped against the rotting wood, a hollow, dull sound that bounced back off the surrounding cedar trees. As if the whole island was snickering at them.
Teiz shouldered his bag of supplies for the Trial then hauled himself out of the boat and onto the pier, doing his best to surreptitiously stretch the seized muscles in his left leg. He grimaced. Too much sitting in too cramped a space, no room to spread out and take the strain off. Barely twenty and he creaked like an old man. The trip back would be misery. If there is a return trip.
Seemed an even gamble at this point, though he’d put his money on his failure. It only took one misstep to ruin the dance.
It shouldn’t be him here. It should’ve been Peiko, the Weiza’s ten-year Trial veteran. Older, yes, and less agile than he’d been in his youth, but reliable. He knew the steps backwards, forwards, and upside-down, could recite the moves and countermoves in the weaving with the lake’s representative for the last decade in meticulous detail. A better choice than a half-crippled survivor who still flinched if someone clapped too loudly, who still struggled with the most basic of steps even after half a year of practice and still couldn’t put his whole weight on his bad leg without his knee buckling.
But Peiko had been stricken with ague five days before the Trial. Was still in bed, shaking and blind with fever. And so it had fallen to him.
The recognition of golden dancer was the highest honor a Weiza warrior could ever achieve. The living’s representative couldn’t afford to fail. Either the dance was completed near enough to perfection—and the dead appeased by that perfection—or the dead would take their payment elsewise, with the representative’s life the only thing of sufficient value. It happened, though rarely. Most of the cautionary examples were so old now they were practically myth, and there hadn’t been a failed Trial since Teiz’s grandmother’s grandmother’s time.
Well. This representative will fail now. So much for that.
Molanwi levered out of the skiff, her ola box balanced on her bowed back, the strap loose around her chest. She grabbed hold of the remnants of a mooring post, steadied herself, then straightened. Her back bones popped. “Eyegh, that was a long trip. You should put cushions on that bench, Gapo. I swear, I’ve bruises on the backside of my backside.”
“Fah. Keep your complaints, old woman. You’re only ever in this boat once a year.” Gapo jerked his chin up in an ambiguous gesture. “I’ll be waiting on the other shore. Light a fire somewhere by the pier when you’re done.”
If. He meant, If you survive, light a fire.
Had Molanwi realized yet that they weren’t expected to succeed? That the council had requested her to partner with him because she was more dispensable? Oh, they’d grieve her loss, but she was already nearer to a natural death than little Zeila. Though only ten, Zeila had accompanied Peiko to the dance last year and, by Peiko’s account, done her part more than competently. Only reason to switch Zeila for Molanwi was if the council didn’t believe Teiz could succeed.
They were to be a sacrifice. Die and appease the dead, a barter of life for another year of protection. Next time, Shanzi would be old enough to be the year’s chosen golden dancer, and Zeila already had the experience. Together, the dance would be done right.
It didn’t matter if Teiz failed. Didn’t matter if he succeeded either.
At least with this death, he could make sure it meant something, even if it was just feeding into antiquated superstition. And it wasn’t as if he had anyone waiting for him on the other shore. Just a sister who saw him as a burden and a father who pretended he was dead.
He turned. Molanwi held a second fat lantern out to him and gave it a little bob in a silent here, take this. The fresh flame still sputtered, finding its hold on the oil-soaked wick. He crossed the few steps and took it from her. The chill of the metal kissed his palm and Teiz tightened his grip on it.
Molanwi patted the piling post in lieu of Gapo’s shoulder. “Mind where you go, old man. I’ve a mind to be home frying eggs before mid-morning and if you go and sink this toy raft you call a boat, I’ll be stuck here till someone notices.”
“Hah! Might be that your son’s wife will enjoy all that silence a little too much. A reprieve from all that nagging. Let you stay out here a few days.”
Molanwi clicked her tongue. “I do not nag. I offer much-needed guidance.”
“Stop fussing and be off with you, woman. And I won’t wreck my boat, thank you very much,” Gapo said. His oars hit the water with a heavy plish and wood creaked. Teiz marked his progress by ear. Then Molanwi’s as she clumped up beside him.
She held up her elbow, patted it with the other hand. In offering? Or demand? He wanted to ask, Which of us do you think needs the support? but couldn’t get the words ordered right on his tongue without it sounding rude.
Her tight smile gave nothing away but cheery goodwill. Stifling a sigh, he looped his arm in hers and they made their hobbling, limping way across the pier and on to the beach. The damp sand and scrubby grass crunched under Teiz’s doeskin-soled slippers. Though it was the sort of flat, wide space ideal for the Trial, the sand would shift too much under his feet and he’d sink with every step, if not trip outright.
No. Needed dirt. Solid, packed dry dirt, little grass, no exposed roots.
He guided Molanwi up the rise and along the forest’s edge, aiming in a circular fashion for the heart of the island. Somewhere in this, they’d find a suitable spot. If nothing else, there was always Peiko’s usual choice, though Teiz preferred to pick his own. Someplace not weighted down with generations of expectation.
Teiz thumped his heel against the ground. Good spring, but not too soft. A little damp, but the fires would dry the surface enough by the time the lake’s representative hiked up here from the lakeshore. Surrounded by trees, the tiny clearing had a sense of privacy to it. The gap between the tree-canopy left it open to the sky and the few fading stars; the night chased away by the faint silvering to the east.
Large enough for two to dance comfortably, small enough to hide his naked weakness. No witnesses but Molanwi and the dead for his eventual failure.
“Here? You’re sure? Peiko usually goes to a place farther on, on a little outcrop overlooking the lake, though I think he’s just being vindictive, making the dead climb up that hill—”
“Here,” Teiz repeated.
“We-ell,” she said and clicked her tongue against the backside of her teeth. “I suppose it’s as good as anyplace else. You’re sure you’ll have enough room for the jumps?”
He stared at her for a long moment, waiting for the double-edged meaning to slice through, but no, Molanwi looked genuinely curious. “I don’t jump much.”
“Mm. That’s a point. And I suppose if you can’t jump, neither should the representative. Makes it equal.”
He hadn’t considered that angle.
Molanwi took the lantern from him and crossed to a spot under a cedar tree, the ground padded liberally with dried needles. She hooked the lantern on the remains of a broken branch, eased herself down, and set to work removing the ola from its case, testing the strings, then the bow. The ola was an old one, the wood blackened by age and polished to gleaming by the oils of generations of hands. Inherited, Teiz guessed, but it hadn’t been her husband’s main ola. That one had been stained so golden, it seemed to glow with its own light.
Maybe she had wrapped that one in her dead husband’s hands, before they’d pulled the cork from the bottom of his burial skiff and launched it into the lake, to sink and bury him with their ancestors. Maybe she’d left it at home, anticipating this to be her last Trial. To keep it safe, set aside for Zeila for next year.
Teiz set his bag on the ground beside her and unpacked the pieces of a collapsible horse-hair broom. He assembled it, then swept the earth clear of dried needles, twigs, and stones—anything that a foot might catch on during the dance.
When he’d deemed it as obstacle-free as he could get it, he traded the broom for the brass bowls and bundles of mugwort and juniper. The bowls were the length of his forearm across, but shallow. Embossed horses chased long-whiskered carp chasing foxes around the rim. He set a bowl at each of the six points of a circle and filled them with twigs, moss, and the herbs. Like the ground, the moss was damp, making it a task to light, but he didn’t have anything better and, besides, he only needed to get one bowl lit.
He knelt at the last, drew his long knife, and struck the flint against the flat edge of the blade. Wished he could’ve used the lantern flame as a starter but the Trial was the Trial. It had steps. Flint and blade was one of them.
Behind him, Molanwi tuned her ola and he almost twitched at the suddenness of the sound. Almost. A year ago, he would’ve. Two years ago, and the long knife would’ve been seeking a target. Minimal progress, but progress all the same. The ola buzzed, hummed, and whinnied, alternating from a slow, gentle wail to quick, pattering strokes that had his feet itching to slap the ground in time to the heartbeat of the music.
Teiz fumbled the flint, swore, and tried again. Sparks skittered along the blade, but died before reaching the twigs. He snarled. Tried again. This time, it caught, and he dropped the flint and bent over it, breathing it up to life. Catching the flame on the end of a taper, he then pushed himself to his feet. His left leg twinged, the cramp warning of a wave of weakness. Teiz gritted his teeth, sheathed his knife, and limped to the other five bowls, lighting each. He let the taper burn near enough to his fingers to scorch, then blew it out with a sharp puff.
Finish the preparations. Call the dead. Begin the Trial. And, before the sun rose over the distant mountains, whatever the outcome, it would be done.
Teiz repacked his supplies, unbelted his long knife, then sat cross-legged next to his bag. Unlaced his slippers and set them aside, checked the bindings of the wrap around his left foot and ankle. Tight but not suffocating. He stood, undid the ties holding his robe closed then shrugged it off, folded it neatly over his arm, then folded it again. The robe joined his bag, knife, and slippers next to the ola box. He stood nearly naked, wearing only an undyed breechclout—less for modesty than practicality—and his embossed dancer’s belt. Span-wide triangular sections of tooled and stained leather hung from the belt, making up for the breechclout’s simplicity.
He looked down at himself, at his sister’s brushwork. Red, blue, green, and yellow markings in the traditional style covered every patch of exposed skin from neck to wrists to ankles, studded with polished, thumb-sized chips of rounded shell affixed with some kind of paste. He hadn’t asked, but it had smelled of honey. Nokalwi had said she’d chosen a leopard for Teiz’s heart and two stags, one on each leg, for swift, strong steps. Teiz had laughed at that—the cold, empty kind of laughter that hurt deep down. The reddened combination of embarrassment and mild horror on Nokalwi’s face had given him such a morbid sense of satisfaction. Pairing him with a white leopard and stags, hah. The gods, as uncaring and capricious as they may be, had a sick sense of humor.
At least the whorls and stylized beasts covered his scars. Excepting the deep pockmarks in his left calf and the jagged ripples along the outside of his thigh. Nothing would ever hide those short of amputation. But Nokalwi had tried. The stag on that side looked mangled, weak, sickly.
He turned his back on Molanwi and held his arms out to his sides. “Looks all right? No smudges?”
“Mmm…” Molanwi said, and Teiz craned his neck to look over his shoulder at her. “Oh, hold still—can’t see that well in this light—hm. No. No smudges. Leastwise that I can tell. Is that a wolf?”
“Ah.” Then, “The nose is a bit long. For a leopard.”
Teiz shrugged. “Doubt the dead will care.” Doubted they even noticed their mortal counterpart in the dance.
Molanwi made a tiny noise, a mix of a snort, a laugh, and a sigh.
“Maybe not. But they might laugh at you.”
“Aye. But they’ve a wicked-strange sense of humor.”
He swallowed the counter, you’re giving feelings to a walking corpse. They weren’t people anymore, just a physical presence for magic to express itself through. An animated conduit, a Centrenian conjuror would’ve said, just a way for the living to interact with the magic of the lake, nothing more, and if the Weiza hadn’t dropped their deceased loved ones in the water, it would’ve chosen something else—like a tree or a dead squirrel. They’d also accuse the Weiza of holding on to dangerous superstition by observing the Trial—which wasn’t necessarily incorrect—and advise the Weiza to leave their dead buried and cease playing with old, wild magic.
The Weiza would argue their dead protected them. From what, the answer ranged from anything to everything. Famine and blight, illness and miscarriage were popular ones. So was something so deep and dark, it has no name, but would prey upon us if it could. But stories only, no proof, nothing Teiz could hold in his hand. The dead couldn’t protect the Weiza from the devastation of war. Then again, every Weiza warrior from age fifteen to forty-five had volunteered for that devastation, infected by the plague of patriotism. Never imagining that the Centrenians would be so callous as to put them on the front lines as fodder, never imagining that the Weiza way of war, of battle, was antiquated and useful only as a tactical sacrifice.
The world went on turning.
The Weiza simply died.
Maybe not even the dead could’ve protected them from that.
Molanwi glided from tuning to practice reels without pausing. Teiz let the rhythm of the music flow through him. It had been a long, long while since he’d danced with the intent of competition. As his mentors were prone to repeating, it was one thing to practice, another to perform. Though similar in form, they were utterly foreign in feel.
He eased himself through the basic stretches. Bend, touch an ankle with a hand, reach for the lightening sky with the other. Bend forward, press hands to the dirt. Dig little furrows with fingers, breathe in the resulting smell of earth, and hold. Straighten and do the same in reverse, squatting, reaching for the backs of his ankles. His muscles burned and his joints strained, warming to the discomfort, to the gentle release of tension.
Dance as if it’s your last, his mentors would’ve said.
This time, it likely was.
If only he was the him of four years ago, the him before Kovyaar and the hex. He had never been the best—that honor had gone to Tonweia—but could claim a fair second most of the time. His footwork was competent and he had been a strong jumper, before Adra. What he lacked in natural grace, he made up for with strength in his core and legs that made the slow, languid steps look effortless. There’d been a time he could maintain a Crane’s Bow one-footed dip for minutes at a time. Though he had never been able to execute Onosa’s height on the high jumps or Tonweia’s seeming weightlessness or Bakli’s near flawless transitions, he’d still been a fine dancer. Fine warrior too, in the old way, the motions of the dance translating to fighting as smooth as Madari silk.
He sat, legs outstretched. Bent over and reached for his toes.
Real pity there wasn’t a place in this world for the old ways. Not anymore. He spread his legs wider and folded himself over sideways at the hip. If war had followed the old style, with his only enemy the one within arm’s reach and the occasional bowman, then perhaps…and then he wouldn’t be…
Enough. He’d let his mind go down that road too many times before. It just led him to courting death, kissing it promises he couldn’t follow through on, never strong enough to step off Three Lovers’ Peak. Or lay his own throat open with a knife. Or hang himself. For fear. Not of the dying—no, at this point, he was starting to think dying was the simple part—but of the pain. He rotated his ankles till the right one popped; the left just squished softly. If he threw himself off Three Lovers’ but broke his legs instead of his neck. If he made the cut, but not deep enough. If he tied the noose wrong, and only managed to slowly choke himself…
If this was to be his last dance, then by all the gods, he was going to make it the best he could. Let the dead witness the shadow of what he’d been.
Teiz rolled on his stomach and twisted his hips one way, then the other, tapping his biggest toe of his opposite foot to the earth far to either side of his shoulders. Compared to his flexibility five years ago, he was stiff, clumsy. He repeated it again. Then again. Fancied his foot got a little closer on the one side, his stronger, right leg warming to the movement. The left…was the left.
He pushed himself up with his hands and toes, held the position for a breath, two breaths, three—then eased onto his knees, straightened his spine, and tipped his head back. Molanwi took this for the prompt it was. She brought the bow across the deepest of the strings, setting up an almost mournful droning. Teiz inhaled deep. Hummed to catch the ola’s tone, and, in the old tongue, began the simple rolling, thrumming chant of the Trial. To his mild amazement, he hadn’t forgotten the order of the words. More amazing still, he hadn’t forgotten the translated version, either.
Come, chosen of the lake, for the living beckon. Come, chosen of the lake, and close the circle. Come, chosen of the lake, and dance with me.
He repeated the call twice, held the final note till he ran out of breath and it petered off in a croak. Molanwi drew the note out a breath longer then she, too, fell silent.
Hands folded on his lap, body slightly angled toward the nearest shore of the lake, he ignored the slight ache of discomfort up his left leg at his prolonged kneeling and let himself sink into a jittery sort of meditation.
The dead took their time replying.
The sky paled, went from a deep, purple-tinged gray to the gray-gold heralding the sun, though mist still clung to the grass. It would be an overcast day the color of clean, whetted steel.
As Teiz suspected, the six bowls of fire warmed the ground enough to burn away some of the damp by the time the lake’s representative slipped from the shadows and into the clearing. He tensed, almost rising, but remained on his knees. The Trial had an order to it.
It took longer than it should’ve for Teiz to recognize her but then, the last time he’d seen his grandmother, she’d been alive and nearing her eighth decade. Teiz’s gut went hollow, and his face and fingers chilled. His innards twisted like dying fish. Of all the representatives the lake could’ve chosen…
Grandmother Lepi had been the prime of the Weiza in her youth, projected to be an undefeated champion for the next twenty years, maybe thirty, of Trials. The best of her generation—no, more than her generation. The last three generations plus his own—something the elders bemoaned. Often. And then chance shattered her knee cap during a routine practice and the leg had healed off-kilter. In the space of a moment, the hope of the Weiza had crumbled, leaving a legacy of might have been‘s shot through with a few should have been‘s. All through his training years, Teiz had been compared to Grandmother Lepi and judged a poor mockery—his jumps were never high enough, his footwork was never smooth enough, his transitions never graceful enough, his movements never controlled enough.
The lake had risen her as if in her peak years, dressed in her dancer’s outfit of tooled belt—a copy of the same one he wore—and breechclout, her breasts bound tight to her chest. She was covered in swirling carp chasing each other’s’ tails and the bare skin that shown through had an eerie silver sheen to it. If he turned his head just right, patches of her flesh flickered in and out of existence, revealing the half-decayed bones underneath.
They hadn’t even begun yet and already he had lost. Before, it was a dark, lurking suspicion but still laced with the insane hope that, maybe, he’d beat the odds. Now, it was a certainty.
“Lepi?” Molanwi said, and Teiz had no trouble visualizing her squinting at Grandmother Lepi in shocked recognition. “Haven’t seen you here before—and so young! I don’t think I ever saw you when you were that age. Huh.”
Grandmother Lepi’s head turned in Molanwi’s direction, too fluid, too smooth for the motion to ever belong to the living.
There was a smile in Molanwi’s voice now, “It’s good to see you again, Palepi.”
Grandmother Lepi jerked her chin in a graceful little nod. As if she understood Molanwi and was returning the favor with a silent likewise. As if she was herself.
But the dead were dead. This was just ancient, untamed magic using her form as a puppet. More than that, if what Molanwi implied was true, that Grandmother Lepi wasn’t the lake’s usual representative, it was untamed magic that had chosen her to match Teiz and all of his weaknesses. He hadn’t asked, hadn’t thought to ask, hadn’t even considered it as a possibility but, oh, he should’ve. Should’ve expected it, should’ve anticipated it. Wild magic rarely played fair.
Teiz gritted his teeth. Swallowed. “Molanwi? Does—” Why ask when you already know the answer? He shifted his question to a statement, more for confirmation than anything else. “Peiko’s representative was someone different.”
“Oh, yes, his was always Gezra.” Peiko’s brother. Gezra had drowned in one of the lake’s tributaries when they were both teenagers long before Teiz’s birth, but the word-image of Peiko pulling his brother’s dead body out of the water had stuck hard with him. Could never look Peiko in the eye without seeing a flicker of that imagined moment.
“At least, I assume it was Gezra last year,” Molanwi continued. “Peiko didn’t say anything about it being any different from his last four Trials.” Teiz glanced over his shoulder. Molanwi’s gaze had gone hazy with introspection as she stared at Grandmother Lepi. “It always made it so terribly sad, watching the both of them dance. They used to pair with each other when Gezra was alive. There was always this feeling like, like they were always within a moment of hugging each other, but never could.”
He doubted his dance would ever be considered sad. Unfortunate, maybe. And pitiful, oh yes.
Grandmother Lepi stretched her hand out to him. If she were closer, it might’ve been an offer to help him up. At this distance, it looked a cross between imperious and sarcastic.
Teiz shoved himself to his feet in a half-stumble fashion that kept direct weight off his bad leg. Even still, the muscles along the back of his calf seized, forcing him to wait in a half-crouched position for them to stop screaming and unlock. He inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled again then, slowly, straightened, and looked up to find Grandmother Lepi watching him, her expression pinched.
She smacked a hand against her left leg, then pulled at her hair. Unlike his, hers was styled in the traditional way, contained in a thick braid down to her hips and woven with brilliant-colored ribbons to match her painted fish. Five years ago, his would have been an echo of hers.
“She’s asking what’s happened to you,” Molanwi said in that tone of the perpetually helpful. Teiz controlled a scowl.
“Are you planning on answering? Because if you don’t, I will. The Trial won’t start till she initiates it, and the Palepi I knew was as stubborn as an old stump when she wanted to be.”
Grandmother Lepi’s lips twitched in a smile and she nodded, crossing her arms—and not in the sign of the invitation of the Trial either.
Teiz frowned, settled on answering the easier of the two questions first, and ran a hand over his short-cropped hair. “Centrenian army regulation. For your pot helmet.” Though the more practical side-effect was not giving an enemy a convenient long tail attached to your head to yank in close melee. “I’ve gotten used to it like this. It’s easier to tend to.” Which…wasn’t even a lie. It just skirted around the whole mess of other, more complicated truths. “Come. Begin the Trial.”
Grandmother Lepi shook her head and tapped her left leg again. Had that been the side with her bad knee? Or was it the other? He couldn’t remember, should remember. She’d been his second mother till her death just before his eleventh birth anniversary.
He threw his hands up to his sides. “I know, I know! Just—give me a moment.” Huddling in on himself and grinding his teeth, he stared off past Grandmother Lepi at the line of cedar trees, now backlit pale gold by dawn. “Molanwi, you’re not—I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.” He would not address that to the pair of you.
Behind him, Molanwi made that snorting-noise again. Grandmother Lepi just stared, eyebrows raised and mouth set in firm expectation. He got the unpleasant feeling that they were ganging up on him. If he could, he’d do the Trial alone, cut out all this talk and silent hand gestures. But the dance itself was designed as a duet—or nonviolent combat, depending on the interpretation—and without an olabasu to set the tone, the pace, the heartbeat of the dance, there would be no mark for comparison, nothing to unify their steps.
And they knew it. And they knew he knew they knew it, and if he didn’t come up with an answer, Grandmother would stalemate him out of his own Trial, curse it.
A chill wind like the last kiss of winter brushed against his back, and his skin prickled with gooseflesh. He shivered. If Grandmother didn’t initiate the Trial soon, he’d have to put his robe back on. The belt-and-breechclout was designed for hot, sweat-soaked dancing, not standing around outside in the early morning.
“This—” Teiz ran his fingers along the rippled scar-tissue along the outside of his thigh. “—was courtesy of a Kovyaar hex that grazed me.” Or, rather, he assumed it was a Kovyaar hex. Because the alternative hurt too much to contemplate. “The holes below it, those were from the pebbles following in its wake. Drilled holes right through my calf, cut me down where I stood. Didn’t really feel it at first.” He did after, though. But the pain—and the blood loss—had left him dumb and his arms as heavy and unyielding as felled trees. Otherwise, he might’ve remembered what the sword in his hand or the long knife on his belt were for and ended his agony early.
Grandmother Lepi made a series of rapid gestures, pointing once at him, then at his leg, then behind her at the lake—or maybe the village, or maybe the supposedly-united-Centrenia as a whole, he wasn’t sure—then at his leg again, then at Molanwi. Her silver flesh flickered, bits of green bone poking through the gaps. She should have smelled of decay but he only caught the occasional whiff of lake water. She repeated the sequence, her movements taking on a harried jerkiness that implied exasperation, frustration, and anger all at once.
She slapped both hands against her chest and stood, feet apart, silently fuming.
“I think she’s asking why you were chosen as the representative.”
“Because—” The words turned to sand in his mouth, and he swallowed, chewed on his tongue to work up the spit. “Because there’s no one else left.”
Grandmother Lepi held her hands out to him—in question, in supplication.
I don’t want to go down this road. But he had to. If he wanted this done with, he had to.
“Most are dead,” he said after a long moment. “Those of us that remain—” Survived. “—most can’t dance. Of my age-mates, there’s just me, Tonweia, and Onosa.” Three, out of twenty-eight. “Tonweia lost both her legs and Onosa took a blow to the head. On one of his good days, he can say maybe three words without slurring or losing track of the point, and only trips over his feet sometimes. I was deemed the least damaged.” He left off saying, at least with me, it didn’t taste so much like leaving the defenseless as bait for the enemy. “They asked. I said yes.” Implying he could’ve said ‘no,’ but that wasn’t quite true, was it?
She gestured again, repeating the why are you here, where is everyone motions as before, but ended it with a circular sweep of her arm as if knocking the heads off tall grass.
Teiz frowned. “I answered that.”
Grandmother Lepi shook her head, repeated the question. Teiz glanced back at Molanwi, mouthed a what now? Molanwi raised her eyebrows at him, her downturned lips shrugging in time with her shoulders.
Teiz turned back to Grandmother Lepi. She swept her arm again, extending the motion, then mimed…drinking water?
Oh. The lake. She was asking about the lake. Where was everyone…lake…everyone and the lake…no, in the…oh.
“They’re in Adra.” Mass graves, Weiza corpses mixed with Centrenians and even a few Kovites. Hundreds upon thousands of dead, and not a lake, any lake, in sight. The sloped Adra country had been one of rivers and hills, not plains and lakes. No standing water for a proper burial. But then, without the lake, without the wild magic, what did it honestly matter if a Weiza was buried in water or dirt? “It was…judged too great a task to sort the bodies and send them home.”
Grandmother Lepi slumped. In defeat. In grief. In…
Teiz eyed the sliver of sky peeking through the canopy. The stars had lost the war against the advancing wall of cloud-cover; a sheer, flat sheet slowly paling. “The sun is rising, Grandmother.” Why so eager to hurry and die?
He didn’t have an answer for that one.
She straightened. Made a come here motion with one hand, then crossed her arms tight over her chest and, slowly, deliberately, bowed.
This is it. This is the start of the last dance of your life.
He copied the motion, initiating the Trial, and took a resting-ready position, his hands at his sides, his legs spaced apart.
Molanwi drew her bow across the ola’s strings, the note reverberating in the sudden silence, held, maintained—then broke into the frenetic opening of Skipping River.
Footwork. Footwork, he could do.
Grandmother Lepi took lead. Her feet flew in a rapid Twisting Mongoose pattern, a combination of small stomps with short hops on the balls of her feet. Her arms rose as she spun once, twice, coming closer and closer—a visually complicated chain, but simple at its core. With a blade in hand, the pattern would cut out a dozen men’s throats.
Teiz countered with a rapid Dovetail, a defensive dance, his motions weaving between the pauses and gaps in hers. The sound of the ola hummed through his skull, down his spine, up through his feet. Spin and step and stomp and step and spin and step and stomp and spin—
They tangled without touching, arms and legs and bodies coiling around the other’s, weaving the knot of the dance. Came together then broke away then came together again. Their steps echoed one for another, first mimicking the swirl of courting fish, then the twirling dance of fighting wolves, then the rapid windblown race of horses. Underneath it all, the soft echo of war, of death, of blood.
Sweat slicked his back, dripped down his face. His breath came in heaving gasps, the sound harsh in his ears. The leather panels at his belt slapped his thighs, marking the tempo. The dirt churned beneath his feet. The world shrunk, collapsed down to this moment, this breath, this step, and how this step connected with that step and that step and that one, building endless chains upon chains of gleaming, seamless motion. Only the now existed, no past, no future beyond the dance. Only his breath, his heartbeat, the hum of the ola strings. Only his body and Grandmother Lepi’s.
Like battle yet…not quite. Close, but the tenor was different, the energy pulsing with another kind of thrumming.
The ola slowed, Molanwi drawing the note out long and slow, gently winding higher and higher. Grandmother Lepi’s movements eased, became an almost aching drip, and Teiz took up counterpoint across from her. She dipped into a Bowing Crane, left leg drawn up close to her stomach, arms outstretched behind and above her, then flawlessly flipped it to a Reaching Cedar instead, left leg and arms reaching for the sky.
A hot, harsh exhalation escaped him. If his breath wasn’t so cursed occupied, he’d have laughed. The ugly kind of laughter bordering on weeping.
She knew. Somehow, she knew. Ideally, he was supposed to mimic her, but there was no blasted way his left leg would cooperate. Couldn’t hold his weight as his sole support—that’d guarantee a tumble—and couldn’t raise it that high without excruciating pain.
He almost risked it. Almost. But the promise of agony had him spinning around her in slow pirouettes instead.
Grandmother Lepi’s frown deepened as he passed her eyes a second time. With judgment? Disapproval? Oh, yes, all of that, and just a hint of disappointment in there too. For the third pass, he kept his eyes on the clouds.
She didn’t allow a fourth. Grandmother Lepi brought her arms down across her chest and threw herself into a sideways Rabbit’s Caper, three small twirling skips ending in a high jump and kick, landing on her right foot near the edge of the clearing between two of the still-burning bowls, and leaned once more into a Bowing Crane. And lingered there.
Ah. A blatant challenge. A follow me if you can.
Fine. He might not be able to achieve that high of a jump, but he could do something just as well.
Arms twining, Teiz spun to the farthest edge of the clearing opposite of Grandmother Lepi, both to give himself time and space. All right. This would be simple, and his arms would end up bearing the brunt of his weight and contributing most of the springing momentum. He could do this. He could do this blindfolded.
No, you used to be able to do this blindfolded.
He crushed down that niggle of doubt and mentally stomped it to a crumpled silence. The ola came to its meandering end. Though the stream of music never paused, there was a slight, silent hesitation as Molanwi gauged the feel of the dance. Repeat, Molanwi. Repeat, curse it! I know the rhythm!
The ola’s reel cycled back—thank the uncaring gods—and eased into a refrain. A slower one, too, as if Molanwi understood what he had in mind, knew he could use the slight addition of time.
On the next breath, he threw himself forward into a flip, let the momentum carry him through one landing into the next, just brushing his left leg with pressure, not giving it time to collapse. Two flips into three into four and, on the fourth, landed on his hands instead of his feet, bringing his momentum to a smooth and sudden halt, his legs stretched straight above him in an inverted, upside-down Tower. And held it.
His breath rasped, stuffed his ears with the bloody grating of it. His head was hot, boiling; his skull too small, pressing in and in and in. Sweat stung at his eyes but he didn’t blink. Embraced that discomfort instead, focused on it and it alone.
He broke into a split and leaned back into his bad leg, using his core to brace himself and bear the brunt of his weight. Back and back until he just touched the tips of his toes to the dirt, and held the position in an upside down, stunted Mountain.
Timing his motion to the refrain’s end, he tipped his lower body forward like a pendulum, as slow and as graceful as he could. His elbows shook, his shoulders and wrists bellowed protest.
His right foot touched earth and he completed the flip, ending in a Poised Stag with one foot planted on the ground, his bad leg bent and twisted around behind him, his arms crossed at the wrists, protecting his throat, his head tilted back and face to the sky.
A whoop of triumph pressed at his throat, his lips pulled back in a manic, gasping grin. Hah! Did it, did it well, did it with precision, near perfection!
The ola buzzed into silence, marking the halfway point of the Trial, the end of the spectacle and a breath of a reprieve before the more difficult challenge began: synchronicity. He would’ve liked to have had the time to rest, to stretch out his aching leg; the afterglow of success would just have to do.
Grandmother Lepi looked as fresh as she had before the Trial began. Though Teiz’s painted leopard and stags were streaked and smudged with sweat and dirt, and he’d lost a good number of the shell dots, Grandmother Lepi’s fish were pristine, untouched. Though his breath came in ragged gasps, she—clearly—had no lungs to breathe with. She could dance from now till eternity. Teiz had maybe till the sun finished cresting the mountains before he collapsed.
But the Trial would continue till either the living surrendered or the dead were appeased. And surrendering was the same as failure.
The ola wailed to life again, this time at an ideal pace for both clever footwork and flashy acrobatics. Teiz took control of the dance before Grandmother Lepi, opening into smooth, almost lazy spins around the perimeter of the clearing. With barely a pause, Grandmother Lepi fell into step with him, her movements echoing his, and together they swirled to the rhythm. It bought time—to plan, to rest—and didn’t look too much like the obvious stalling tactic it was.
Ah, but you can’t spin forever.
He swirled into a dipping Hawk Wheel. Grandmother Lepi copied the step then, before he could redirect into another, she broke off with a twirl into a Cavorting Fox pattern. Obligated by the dance, Teiz followed her lead, swallowing down a flicker of trepidation. It could’ve been worse. She could’ve chosen another Bowing Crane or Stretching Tree or a proper, upright Tower, playing on the clear weakness of his left leg. At this point, Grandmother Lepi couldn’t have possibly missed observing how often he avoided relying on it, though it left the question: why wasn’t she using that weakness against him? Or maybe, it was simply that she hadn’t used it against him yet.
Be on guard. Though with her as lead, there wasn’t much he could do.
He ought to be safe for the next few steps—the Cavorting Fox could only serve as the lead in for a Resting Loon or a Fanning Hawk. He could execute a Resting Loon. A Fanning Hawk was trickier, but with a little foresight, he could potentially spring off and land with his right leg.
Grandmother Lepi twisted, arms sweeping low as if hauling up a heavy bowl of water, signaling the opening of a Fanning Hawk, a wild, leaping kick that brought the heel down heavy and hard.
He echoed, calculated an extra half-spin to put his weight on his right-side, and leapt.
And misjudged the landing.
His right foot hit the dirt at a slight angle, skidded a fraction forward, came to an abrupt halt, his weight pushed off balance. His left foot shot out to take the landing and, just as he realized what he’d done, his knee buckled. He dropped, hit the dirt, rolled with the excess momentum. Tasted earth, the grit caught between his teeth.
He spat. Pushed himself up, back to his feet, and caught the tail-end of Grandmother Lepi’s Rabbit’s Caper, his steps slotting back into synchronicity with hers in time for her second Hawk. This time around, he pulled off the landing, but stumbled on the opening steps for a Cavorting Fox. Didn’t fall, not that time, but close, so very close, curse his shaking leg.
And yet, on the dismount, his leg collapsed. Didn’t twinge or shake or give any warning, just committed mutiny and refused to lock in place like a leg was meant to. Not fair, not right. He hadn’t even rested that much weight on it.
He slid, slow and with an unjust level of grace, down on his left knee, the bad knee. The thump reverberated up through his leg, his hip, his spine. He tipped to the side, still falling, everything on his left side from his midsection down going nerveless. Couldn’t catch himself, couldn’t stop himself.
He flung out his hand and the heel of his palm slammed into the dirt.
This is it.
And now, I die.
Belatedly, it occurred to him that this was his second fall, that he’d failed a few moments ago but his lagging mind hadn’t put it together, too absorbed in the dance to notice.
Molanwi continued to play, repeating the same section round and round. She should’ve stopped, if not on the first fall, certainly the second. So was it an almost cruel denial or belligerent hope that she kept the song going? A refusal to acknowledge that his failure had not only cost him his life, but hers alongside?
Wished she’d stop. His death didn’t need an ola’s accompaniment and hers didn’t need a prelude.
Grandmother Lepi halted half a dozen paces away and turned back, standing with her arms out. Gesturing a silent come here.
I can’t. Can’t you see? I’m broken, I’m weak. I should never have been chosen, but they needed someone to die and I was deemed expendable.
For all the lake’s power, she apparently couldn’t hear his thoughts. Teiz gritted his teeth, swallowed down his shame. “I can’t.” It came out cracked, too breathless and empty. Fitting for such an admission.
Grandmother Lepi gestured again, as if inviting him in for a hug. A sick, ugly little bark shot past his lips, a twisted mockery of laughter and woe. You’ve lost, boy, you’ve lost—but did you honestly believe this could end any other way?
No. No, he’d die on his feet, not on his knees.
He heaved himself up, almost fell again—forward this time—but staggered upright, weight centered on his right leg. His left still shivered as if each muscle was cramping individually, out of rhythm with the rest, accompanied by a bone-deep ache shot through with bright sparks of agony. Hadn’t had it this bad in over a year, to the point he’d started to believe the shakes had been temporary, a sign of healing even. Ideally, he should sit down. Give it time to pass off.
Instead, he forced himself to stand straight. To greet death with dignity, with a warrior’s composure.
Grandmother Lepi lowered her hands. Tilted her head to the side. In puzzlement? In question? He wasn’t sure, and Molanwi still hadn’t stopped playing, so he couldn’t ask for her interpretation.
Part of him wanted to beg for the lake’s mercy. Let him try, one more time, let him get it right. Another part just wanted it over with. Even if the lake did grant him that chance, he didn’t have the momentum and madness of the dance lending him the necessary strength any longer. No, now that he’d stopped, exhaustion had started to set in, the shaking in his leg spreading to the rest of him.
Soft, near silent, Grandmother Lepi approached.
At a distance, she could be mistaken for one of the living. Glowing and clearly enchanted, but living. Up close, there was no making that mistake. It took a few moments of staring at her for the reason behind the oddness to clarify. She didn’t breathe, that he’d already suspected, but she also didn’t blink. Her gaze was eerie, unwavering, unflinching, like being stared at by a moving Centrenian statue. But unlike a statue there was…well, not life in her eyes, but something. Intelligence. Awareness. The lake—its magic—looked out at him, a consciousness inhuman and entirely unfathomable.
Grandmother Lepi raised her hands above Teiz’s shoulders—not much a challenge, seeing that he was of middling height and Grandmother Lepi had always been a tall woman, even bowed by age. In her youth, she was at an eye with him if not a little taller.
This is it. She’s going to kill you.
Making him the first representative to die in the Trial in six generations. Well, if he couldn’t have fame, might as well settle for infamy. He closed his eyes, the whole of him tensing in one, prolonged wince. And waited for death to fall.
Grandmother Lepi’s hands rested on his shoulders. This close, the smell of lake water rolling off her drowned out everything else, even the pervasive stink of his own sweat and exertion. She smelled like funerals, like his youth, like childhood ignorance and innocence, but also, faintly, like the humid tail end of summer.
He breathed it in. This smell of death wasn’t like a battlefield’s—of blood and filth and the overwhelming metallic burn of magic. This smell, though not pleasant, could be a kind of comfort.
He found himself leaning into it. His forehead touched Grandmother Lepi’s. Her silver skin wasn’t quite cold, wasn’t quite warm, just a fraction above the uncanny chill of a corpse. His skin crawled as if shrinking back from hers.
He should be shrieking in panic right about now. The representatives weren’t meant to touch; the living and dead were always separate. That was the dance, that was part of the challenge of it, to dance with a partner you could never fully interact with. This was…wrong. But…yet…it didn’t feel wrong. It felt almost like warmth.
Her hands slid down to his elbows. He let his arms hang slack, and she lifted and guided his limp limbs up till his hands brushed her shoulders. She twined her arms around his, placed her hands on his shoulders, bringing a close to their circle.
A detached part of him noted that this position, this twined arm-in-arm circling, was a couple’s dance, very often a wedding dance. That same detached part bucked a little at the idea of doing such a dance with his own dead grandmother moments before his own death but, gods curse it, he just didn’t have the energy left to care.
The ola slowed, the tune shifted to a marriage waltz.
Grandmother Lepi swayed, slow and gentle. After a moment, he joined her.
That was the thing about this dance, this particular dance out of the vast expanse of the Weiza’s repertoire. Most anyone could do it. The young, the old, the fit, the infirm. There were varieties of it for those chair-bound and those missing limbs, varieties for those blind to their partner’s movements, for those deaf to the music’s guidance. It was designed for all, not only warriors and dancers.
With silent insistence, Grandmother Lepi coaxed him into lazy circles. Their steps synchronized, their shared momentum spinning them, if not faster, more smoothly together. More and more the line between them blurred, unified.
What was this? The lake insisting the Trial be completed even when the representative had already failed? And only after would his life be forfeit? A sound between a laugh and a sob hitched in his throat. Oh, yes. That fit the ways of wild magic.
Unlike the usual Trial dances, this dance was a short one, though more easily repeatable. Teiz let Grandmother Lepi lead them around and around the clearing, unable to muster the courage necessary to step away and call it finished. Molanwi indulged them, winding the ola through the song and back again to the beginning.
At last, Teiz let his hands drop to Grandmother Lepi’s elbows, signaling his consent for the Trial’s end. Though not ready—he doubted he’d ever be ready. But he couldn’t spin forever.
The ola wound down to silence, leaving an empty hum in its wake. Wood clicked against wood, Molanwi lowering her bow and ola, laying one over the other in her lap. Settling in to wait for her turn at death.
The guilt of that bit deep. If only Molanwi hadn’t been paired with him, if only Peiko hadn’t fallen ill, if only he’d been stronger, faster, better and completed the Trial, if only the lake’s judgment fell on the failed dancer instead of both dancer and olabasu. If only, if only…
I’m sorry, Molanwi.
Grandmother Lepi’s fingers wrapped around the back of his head and gently pulled down. At first, he resisted, but then gave in.
His mind rattled down all the reasons why she’d need his head lowered for this. It wasn’t a very long list, but a gory one. Her fingers slid down the sides of his neck, almost like a caress.
He’d meant to keep his eyes open but, curse it, it was like watching a battlefield surgeon stitch up your own wound. Kept flinching and trying to look away, but Grandmother Lepi wouldn’t let him, leaving the only recourse not seeing at all.
At least it would be quick. A momentary spark of pain maybe, a glimmer of awareness, and then it would be done.
Something cool pressed against the center of his forehead and it took a moment to recognize the shape of the touch as lips. Or the distant echo of lips; close but not quite right, too yielding in some ways, too sharp in others. But close.
Grandmother Lepi gave the side of his face a solid pat, so like she used to when alive, so unlike the fluttering cold touch of his memory.
And then her presence was gone.
Teiz blinked. Grandmother Lepi walked away from him, following the same path she’d used entering the clearing. She turned back once to gesture a silent follow me at him, but didn’t wait for his reply. At that pace, he’d have no trouble following, even with all his stiffening muscles and aching body.
With a groan, Molanwi levered herself upright. At some point, she’d repacked the ola, snapped shut the case. “Hup—well, that’s that. In good time, too. Sun’s barely up, should be back in time for those eggs.” She shook out her skirts then stretched her back with a silent hiss of discomfort. “Come, Teiz. She’s inviting you to follow.”
“But—why?” To drown him? Instead of snapping his neck? Compelled by unspoken rule of old magic that his death had to somehow match the theme of the lake? Drowning would be slow and only relatively painless compared to a dissolution hex. All things considered, he preferred the snapped neck.
“Because. That’s how this always goes.” She waited a moment, then huffed and stepped past him. “If you’re not going to follow, I am. The lake and I, we have an arrangement, see.”
No, he didn’t see. But Molanwi was already walking away from him, following Grandmother Lepi down to the lakeshore.
Well, he’d truly be cursed if he let Molanwi go alone.
Though the muscles in his legs and back were tight and burning, though even his bones ached with the weight of his own flesh, though every bit of him wailed—begged—for him to just sit down and do nothing for the next few hours—days—Teiz sighed and plodded after.
By the time they reached the lakeshore, Teiz’ sweat had not only dried, but chilled him through. Why hadn’t he thought to grab his robe before walking out of that clearing? And his slippers alongside? In the short walk, he’d smashed his toes against more rocks and unseen roots than he wished to remember, scuffed the soles of his feet raw, was covered in drying mud up to the kneecaps. The paste holding the shined bits of shell had turned a burning sort of itchy, and he scratched off the last, along with most of the leopard’s eye.
Dirt gave way to scrub, gave way to damp sand.
Grandmother Lepi waded into the lake. Molanwi stood with her sandaled feet lapped by the surf, her arms out as if offering to hug the dawning sun. A breeze tugged at her skirts and the wisps of hair that had escaped her crowning braid. By all reasoning, Grandmother Lepi’s braid should be moving the same way, but instead, just swayed slightly in time with her step.
Teiz limped up behind Molanwi as the water crested Grandmother Lepi’s ribs. Grandmother Lepi bobbed in place once, twice, then dove with a soft splash, her silver skin flashing, almost rippling, seeming to set her painted carp in motion. And then she was gone, her bones sinking to the bottom of the lake, leaving behind only a thin trail of bubbles on the surface.
With eyes closed, Molanwi hummed the familiar chant of invitation.
Teiz bit back a but you can’t do that! because, clearly, she believed she could and, clearly, it wouldn’t matter one whit what Teiz said, she’d just glower him into submission.
She reached the end of the chant and looped back. Her arms sagged. Her skirts snapped and rustled. Teiz shivered and calculated the time it’d take to double back to the clearing for his robe.
Bubbles swirled on the surface of the lake about an arm’s throw from where Grandmother Lepi had disappeared. The bubbles became a stream became a ripple, and the ripple shaped itself to an arrowhead pointed toward shore, coming closer and closer with every breath.
A dark streak underscored with silver parted the water, gave rise to a head, then a neck, then shoulders, then the naked torso of a man, mostly fit though sliding from youthful strappy to middle-aged pudgy, his hair dark and contained in an utilitarian knot at his neck. He had a vague sort of familiarity to him, but then, that might’ve been simply the expectation of familiarity.
“Ah, there’s that fool old man.”
Her husband. Her very naked husband, clothed only in the silver-tinged flesh of the lake’s magic, his arms raised wide to embrace Molanwi.
Teiz shuffled back till his heels brushed the scrub. The pair enveloped each other, an embrace hinting at such a level of deep intimacy, of vulnerability, it felt a violation to even be standing here. As their lips found the other’s, Teiz dropped his gaze, stared at his filthy feet. Turned his back on them.
He should start trekking back to the clearing, dress himself, gather and wash out the bowls, fetch Molanwi’s ola. After that, either cut through the center of the island to the pier on the far side or follow the lake around, and set up the bonfire that’d bring Gapo back.
Instead, he went to rest against a stump blasted smooth by time and wind and rain and sand, missed, and slid down the side. Didn’t even mind the impact when he hit the ground, legs sprawled to either side, back to the stump and the silent line of cedar trees, arms slack in his lap, facing the lake but at an angle that put Molanwi and her husband out of view. Before he consciously recognized he was doing it, he had his head tilted back and his face to the overcast sky.
The implications of not being dead crept in. He’d survived. Again. He was going home. Again. Unlike the first time, his wake wasn’t studded with a trail of corpses, but the question still hovered like an execution stroke. He survived. What now?
His path split. One way led to the end, to finally exhaling this heavy pause, this stagnant breath he’d held for the last two years, and throw himself off Three Lover’s. Only, now it was clear no one stood behind him to give that final push. If he stepped, he stepped. Alone.
The other, though, led to…being. Finish weaving those nets Palwa had him working on for the past few days. Help old man Munzi repair his rabbit traps. Think on what answer to give Beie concerning that proposition to teach the older children—destined to be Weiza warriors in five, ten more years—long knife techniques, though his immediate knee-jerk answer was a hard and definite “No, never.” Watch Munzi’s little smokehouse, though that was mostly an excuse to sit and do nothing for a few hours and maybe have a skin of Gapo’s cloudberry wine.
There was such a sense of wrongness to it. A nothingness. An emptiness.
He’d come to this island expecting to die. He hadn’t planned for a tomorrow. Or, really, today past mid-morning.
His eyelids slipped down, so heavy, so cursedly heavy…
Just resting. Just…listening to the bukuras chitter at each other. Listening to the whisper of cedar needles hushing in the breeze, the sound of the tiny lake waves lapping at the shore. Listening and resting.
Just for a moment.
He’d start moving again…start doing…something…clear up the mess…eventually…
Cloth thumped against his lap and his eyes shot open. Muscles tensed to fling off his blankets, to roll, the stink of battle-field magic clogging up his nose and down his throat. He reached beside his bedroll for his long knife, touched only something like wet hair and something gritty.
Grass and sand.
Beach! You’re on the beach, remember you’re on the beach—
Teiz exhaled. Inhaled. Tried to convince his already aching muscles to unwind. “Molanwi, don’t—please, don’t do that again.”
Molanwi stood over him, a crisp, looming shadow against the white-gray of the sky, a breeze pulling at the thoroughly undone mess of her braid, her hair more gray-brown than silver-gold in the light, though her posture was oddly twisted and leaning back half a step. Ready to put her out of arm’s-reach. Wise. “Sorry. I thought you were awake.”
She made her soft hm noise again.
“What’s this?” he asked just as he recognized his discarded robe, wrapped in a tight ball around…ah, there were his slippers.
“Your clothes. And before you ask, your knife is with your bag.” She gestured with her chin at the tree line. “I’ve cleared up the Trial mess, washed the bowls, repacked the bag and such.”
“You didn’t have to. I could’ve—”
The corners of her mouth dropped, and she looked as grave as a funeral procession bearing the boat of their dead on their shoulders. Grave and…sad? Her eyebrows, though, were slanting toward anger. “Teiz. Stop it. Yes, my back aches from all that playing, but clearly not as much as the whole of you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “View it as a gift if you must, but whatever you do, don’t groan about it to me.”
He swallowed back the but I wasn’t groaning that prodded at his tongue and, instead, shrugged on his robe with as little movement as possible. His slippers would be more of a challenge, though. Had to work out a way of getting them on without bending over…
He gave up and bent, his breath hissing between his teeth. The gashes and scrapes along his right foot brushed the inside of the slipper and he leaned into that single sharp sting, that grounding pain. Reminded him it could always be so much worse. Reminded him that the discomfort of strained and tired muscles was a sign of slow-gaining strength.
The left foot was easier in the wake of his throbbing right. Not too many cuts and bruises on that one, but then, he’d favored it during the Trial, kept it out of the way, and it was still wrapped in the filthy support bandage. If he already limped with his left, and now limped with his right, would he be balanced out in the middle? Or just hobble about and fall over?
Molanwi tapped him on the top of the head. “Come on. Up you get.”
He wanted to say in a moment but couldn’t muster the courage to admit the whole of him had gone as stiff as the stump and now that he was sitting, he couldn’t figure out a way of levering himself up without using his arms, legs, or torso.
Molanwi watched him, then gave a little sigh, and sat against the stump at an angle to himself. Her presence lurked just at the edge of his vision, if he tilted his head slightly.
The waves lapped. A squad of ducks drifted past, followed by a pair of snowy-white swans. The sun rose higher, and the air turned heavy with the promise of a warm-verging-on-hot day. The bukuras chattered, inviting reinforcements, and insects thronged and flitted along the surface of the lake. A crane settled in the shallows, dipped its beak, and came up with a flash of silver.
So much life.
“You knew.” His voice sounded cracked and worn.
“That the Trial wasn’t what you thought? Of course I knew. I was married to an olabasu for nigh on forty years and I’ve been an olabasu myself for four. Of course others have fallen. Or surrendered. Even the lake’s representatives make mistakes. Not often, but they do. And there’s always ill luck which can strike either representative, sometimes both.” Molanwi’s hand hovered over the back of his head, the proximity of it tickling at his hair. He leaned back into that pathetic excuse for an embrace. “It isn’t about the winning, Teiz. It never was.”
“Why didn’t you say?”
“Because.” Her fingers ran furrows along his scalp. “You weren’t listening and—well.”
She breathed a soft grunting sigh, a sound of grudging reluctance. “Your sister was concerned you would react poorly.”
He forced his eyelids open. Blinked at the sky. “What does Noka have to do with any of this?”
“She’d asked the council to keep their silence after you were named Peiko’s alternate. I said she was only fending off the inevitable, but she insisted it was harmless. That thinking of it as life-and-death gave you purpose. I still say it was obsession and at some point, you’d dance till you either broke your leg or your heart but she wouldn’t hear none of it.”
Both, if he’d had his way. The practice had driven the thinking part of his mind underwater, drowned it in the silence of exertion, pain, and sweat. By the end of the day, he was too cursed sore to do anything but eat and roll onto his sleeping mat, then wake with the sun and do it all over again.
“When you were chosen as this year’s golden dancer, Nokalwi convinced the council it was better to leave you how you were.”
“Not ignorant, just…Teiz, you were young when you left us.”
“I was an adult.” Barely. At fifteen, barely an adult, and he’d lied for the Centrenian’s conscription papers and their oaths and said he was seventeen. And they, starved for bodies to sling at their war, didn’t question it.
“And when you came back…you came back a stranger. People tried telling you, but you refused—no, that’s unfair, I suppose. You needed it still to be the way it was when you were a boy, I think. So Noka thought it was better to wait until—well, if—you returned. The council agreed it wasn’t doing you any harm. If anything, they said, it was making you dance all the harder. And your sister—” Molanwi hesitated a breath, then came to a decision. “—your sister said that with you dancing again, she wasn’t so afraid you’d throw yourself off a cliff.”
He snorted, and let his head sag back into Molanwi’s kneading fingers. “Didn’t have the time.”
Her fingers twined, twisting and parting his hair. Just as Grandmother Lepi had done when he was a boy and his hair was long enough to braid. Now, though, it was probably sticking it up in clumps.
“Does the whole village know?” It was a cruelty bordering on pure madness if the whole blasted village knew and kept it secret from him. That not only did this conspiracy include Noka and the council and Molanwi, but all nineteen longhouses and thirty families.
Molanwi snorted. “It…varies. Some believe with all their hearts, yes, with all the blind devotion and worship of children—Lepi was always one of those, secretly. I suspect that’s where your father gets it.” The and you went unspoken. “For most, it’s…somewhere in between. It’s ritual, it’s tradition, it’s one of the few things we have left that makes us Weiza. Gods know we’ve lost most of the rest. Some argue it’s outdated. Better to do away with it now than have it be the task of our children’s children, let the dance be just a dance. Some don’t care one way or the other, it means nothing to them. Everyone else…” She clicked her tongue and gave Teiz’s hair a gentle pull. “Your hair’s far too short. Your head looks like the backside of a furze-pig.”
Ignoring that. “Everyone else?” he prompted.
“I was getting there. Patience, boy.” She sighed. “Most everyone else fears breaking the pattern. They say we’ll bring down the wrath of the lake, or that the lake will withdraw its blessing, depending on which side of superstitious they fall on. Doesn’t much matter if they doubt everything else. And so, we bide. We keep to the old ways. Until we don’t.”
He leaned forward, breaking contact with Molanwi. “So none of it—this—matters? We trek out here once a year for nothing? What, in the name of all nameless gods, is the cursed point? Or is the point that it’s pointless?”
Molanwi’s hand snapped out and smacked the back of the head, hard enough to hear in the insides of his ears, not hard enough to hurt. “Not pointless, boy! There’s magic here, old and true and nothing like that strange, molded dead stuff the Centrenians call magic. If you hadn’t played by its rules, it would have killed you. It’s an even wager if it would’ve taken me too, or accepted my offering as suitable. Don’t mistake falling for failing, Teiz.”
“Aye? And what are those rules no one deemed important enough to tell me?”
“That it’s about balance. Give and take. That it’s less a striving for perfection, more the satisfaction. It’s a dance, boy. The lake is the Weiza’s partner. We dance together, never alone. Two halves, life and death, bound with magic. The lake is our protector.”
“Is it?” His lip twisted, and his tone turned brittle. “Is it really? Because as far as I can tell, it does very little protecting.”
It didn’t guard them from Centrenia, that was for certain. Nor from Kovyaar. Not from famine or sickness or war. Not magic, not patriotism, not duty. Not from death, and oh, had there been so much death. For a supposedly omnipotent power that had stepped into the role of the Weiza’s long-estranged gods, the lake didn’t do all that much.
He wove his fingers through a clump of grass and yanked. The roots held, and his hand jerked back with only a handful of shredded green stuff between his knuckles.
“We haven’t been invaded since as far back as memory,” Molanwi said softly.
“No, they just surround us and claim us, and then we go out and fight their wars for them.”
“Aye, we do that.” Molanwi took a long, harsh breath and held it. “I think—” Her words cut off with a slight hiccup, a click deep in her throat. “Now, mind you, this is only what I think, born of years of watching and more years of thinking and not much else—but I don’t think the lake is meant to protect us from death. Uncaring gods, we run at it with open arms and call it an honor. No. I think the thing the lake is meant to protect us from is forgetting.”
“What’s there to forget?” he said, picking pulped and sticky grass off his skin. Except the things that should be forgotten. Like Adra.Except, he could never forget Adra. He didn’t deserve to forget Adra.
“The past. Who we are. Who we were. What we mean.” Molanwi exhaled, long, slow, and hissing. The crane abandoned its fishing in a whirl of feathers, heading toward the far shore. “The lake gives us purpose.”
“What purpose? To please it?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps something more.” She made a smacking, popping noise with her lips. “Purpose. Immortality.”
“That isn’t life. What comes out of that lake isn’t life, it’s just…pieces. Pieces of people.” He flicked grass bits off the tips of his fingers.
“Think of it more like memory, then. The lake never forgets. The Weiza, we forget. Might take a bit of time, but you and me and Peiko and even little Zeila—we’ll all be forgotten. Same as we’ve forgotten the golden dancers and olabasus of a hundred years gone. Same as we’ve forgotten the names of those who failed the Trial. The lake,” she said, “always remembers. Which is a little like immortality.”
He opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of a reply to that, so held there, trapped between speech and grunt.
Molanwi patted his shoulder. “It’ll remember you, you know. One day, Teiz, the lake might have your bones dancing against your own grandchild.”
What a sickening thought. It was one thing to be remembered as a golden dancer, another for his own corpse to be used like Grandmother Lepi’s. Never! he wanted to shout. They won’t put me in the lake, I refuse! Except, the idea of a Weiza not being returned to the lake was uncomfortable. To do so voluntarily? That had an element of horror.
He blew out a breath. “It’s cruel.”
“You think so? Hm. The way I see it, it’s partly necessity. I don’t think we’d have survived as long as we have without our lake.”
“And the rest?”
Molanwi was silent for a long moment. “The Weiza dream of heroes, Teiz. We always have. The lake lets us have our heroes. And, unlike the world, it usually gives our heroes back.” She held out her hand, her posture braced to lever him up. Her lips curled upwards and she said in a tone more teasing than mockery, “Come, chosen of the living. Breakfast calls.”
He eyed her hand for a long moment, eyed it and mulled over the implications of breakfast. Like living, it wasn’t half as simple as it appeared. Teiz breathed deep, the smell of lake water and magic flooding his nose, the tang of it coating the back of his tongue, let himself recognize it for what it was, and held it there as long as he could.
His guts writhed, and he swallowed back vomit. Ah, that was foolish, thinking that, somehow, one Trial would undo four years of horror ground down into his bones. It’d probably do this to him for the rest of his life. Just have to avoid it, then.
Teiz took Molanwi’s hand and let her help haul him to his feet. His body wailed in protest and his bad leg shook under his weight, but held. For now. “Aye,” he gasped. “So it calls.”
And he took an unsteady step forward.
Copyright 2024 R. J. Howell
About the Author
R. J. Howell is a writer, an artist, and a library nerd. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Arsenika, Frozen Wavelets, and Translunar Travelers Lounge and in anthologies such as Beyond the Stars: Infinite Expanse, Wicked West, and Luminescent Machinations. You can find her online at rjhowell.com.