Moon Chosen--Tales of a New World, Page 2P. C. Cast
“I don’t want to disappoint you, Mama.”
“You couldn’t disappoint me, no matter what path you choose for your life.” Leda paused, grimacing as a new tremor of pain swept through her body, and the silver tinge that had begun to appear on her mother’s delicate hands spread up her arms.
“Okay, Mama! I’ll come with you,” Mari said quickly, and was rewarded by her mother’s brilliant smile.
“Oh, Mari! I’m so glad.” Pain temporarily forgotten, Leda rushed into her room and Mari could hear her clattering through the pots and baskets and precious glass jars that held her vast collection of herbs, tinctures, and poultices. “Here it is!” she called, and then reappeared with a familiar wooden bowl. “Let me touch up your face. We’ll need to dye your hair again soon, but not tonight.”
Mari stifled a sigh and tilted her face up so that her mother could reapply the muddy mixture that kept their secret.
Leda worked in silence, thickening her daughter’s brow, flattening her high cheekbones, and then, lastly, smearing the dirty, sticky claylike substance down her neck and arms. When she was finished she studied Mari carefully, and touched her cheek gently. “Test it at the window.”
Mari nodded somberly. Followed by Leda, she went to the far side of the cave’s main room and climbed the rock steps up to a niche carved meticulously through layers of rock and dirt. She slid aside a long rectangular-shaped stone. Warm air swirled from the opening, caressing Mari’s cheek like a second mother. Mari stared into the hole to the upper world and the eastern sky, which was already reflecting the pale, washed-out colors that night painted over brilliant day. She lifted her arm so that the wan light from above touched her. Then she met her mother’s gaze.
Leda’s eyes, just like Mari’s, were so gray they were almost silver. Mari focused on the beauty of their shared trait.
Under the full moon, like her mother, Mari’s eyes would glow silver.
Like her mother, Mari’s skin would glisten as she basked in the full moon night and let its cool, silver light fill her and calm her.
Thinking longingly of the moon and the power it held, Mari’s hand stretched farther up into the hole, as if reaching for moonlight. But instead of finding the delicate silvery beams, her fingertips caught the yellow light of the fading sun. Her hand trembled at the inrush of heat and Mari pulled it quickly back to her, spreading her fingers and staring at the delicate filigree pattern that even such a small amount of sunlight had the ability to call to the surface of her skin. Mari hugged her hand to her chest while the sunlight-colored pattern faded like a lost dream upon waking.
Unlike her mother. She was so unlike her mother.
“That’s okay, sweet girl. Let’s take your summer cloak. It’s light enough that you won’t be too hot, but—”
“But the sleeves will cover my arms and hands until the sun has fully set,” Mari finished for her. With slow steps, she climbed down from the window and went to the basket that held her cloaks.
“I wish you didn’t have to hide. I wish it could be different.” Her mother’s voice was soft and sad.
“I do, too, Mama,” Mari said.
“I’m so sorry, Mari. You know I—”
“It’s okay, Mama. Really. I’m used to it.” Mari schooled her expression into nonchalance as she turned to face her mother. “And I may grow out of it.”
“No, my sweet girl, you won’t. Your father’s blood runs as truly in your veins as does mine and I wouldn’t change that. No matter the cost, I wouldn’t ever change that.”
I would Mama. I would. But Mari only thought the words as she wrapped her cloak tightly around her and followed Leda from the safety of their burrow.
Side by side, Mari and Leda topped the rocky rise in the land and looked down at the Gathering Site. At first glace the site appeared no different from any other small clearing within the swampy southern forest. There was a stream that wound through the willows and hawthorns, holly and ferns—the stream and the lazily waving boughs of the trees and shrubs were what purposely drew the eye. It took more than a glance, or even a second or third look—at least from the distance of the rise—to see the truth cunningly hidden among the ferns and foliage. In neat clusters early kale, lacy endive, fat tufts of butter lettuce, and late-winter garlic flourished under the care of the Clanswomen.
Leda paused and drew a deep, satisfied breath. “Thank you, Earth Mother,” the Moon Woman spoke as if the Goddess, and not her daughter, was standing beside her. “Thank you for gifting your Earth Walkers with the ability to coax living things from your fertile bosom.”
Mari breathed deeply with Leda and smiled, used to the intimate way she spoke with her Goddess. “I can smell the lavender oil from here,” Mari said.
Leda nodded. “The Clanswomen have done a good job readying the Gathering Site. No wolf spider pack will get anywhere near here this night.” She paused, pointing to the carefully situated campfires. Only one was in the center of the Gathering. The others were strategically placed all around the circumference of the space, with torches planted nearby. “And the firestarters are ready in case a swarm is attracted by so many of us in one place.”
“I know the fires are for protection, but being lit up like that makes the whole clearing look happy.”
“It does indeed,” Leda agreed.
“I hope the purple kale is ready to harvest soon,” Mari said as they began picking their way down to the Gathering Site. “I can almost taste how delicious it’ll be mixed with those capers we pickled.”
“It has been warm early this spring,” Leda said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a bunch will be ready tonight.”
“That alone will be worth the trip,” Mari said.
Leda’s glance was sharp. “Mari, I didn’t force you to join me.”
“I know, Mama. I’m sorry I sounded like that.”
Leda squeezed her hand. “Don’t be nervous. Trust yourself.”
Mari was nodding tightly when a mini-whirlwind hurled herself into her arms, hugging her tightly and almost knocking her off her feet.
“Mari! Mari! I’m so, so glad you’re here! You must be feeling well.”
Mari smiled at the younger girl. “I am well, Jenna. And I’m glad to be here, too.” She touched the Maiden Moon Crown that circled Jenna’s dark head. It was woven beautifully from lavender and ivy. “Your crown is really pretty. Did your father make it?”
Jenna giggled, looking more like six than sixteen. “Father? No! His fingers are like stumps and he says they all turn into thumbs when he tries to weave. I made it.”
“Well done, Jenna,” Leda said fondly, smiling at her daughter’s friend. “You did a wonderful job of weaving the lavender into the center pattern of the crown. You’re showing real talent.”
Jenna’s cheeks flushed an adorable pink. “Thank you, Moon Woman.” Her smile was bright as she bowed formally to Leda, arms down and spread, palms open and facing outward to show she hid no weapon or ill will.
“Oh, Jenna! You don’t have to be so formal. It’s just Mama,” Mari said.
“She’s just your mama. She’s my Moon Woman,” Jenna said cheekily.
“Who is also your friend,” Leda added. “Which type of weaving are you most drawn to—thread work or something less intricate?”
Jenna spoke softly, shuffling her feet, “I—I want to weave beautiful scenes, like the Earth Mother tapestry in the birthing burrow.”
“Then thread work it is,” Leda said. “Tonight I’ll speak with Rachel about being sure you are properly apprenticed.”
“Thank you, Moon Woman,” Jenna said quickly, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
Leda cupped her face and kissed her on the forehead. “Your mother would do the same for my Mari had I passed on to join our Earth Mother before her.”
Mari moved closer to her friend and linked arms with her. “Only I am as hopeless with weaving as your father, which would have baffled your mama.”
“But you can d
raw anything!” Jenna gushed.
“Moon Woman! Our Moon Woman is here!” From the Gathering a strong, male voice called
Leda smiled and acknowledged the greeting with a cheery wave. “As usual, your father is the first Clansman to see me.”
“Father will always be first to see you—first to be Washed by you. It’s because he loves me so much,” Jenna said proudly.
“That he does, Jenna,” Leda said.
“Xander is a really good father,” Mari agreed, smiling at her friend, though to herself she acknowledged, lucky for Jenna that Xander seeks out Mama without fail every Third Night. If he didn’t she’d be worse than an orphan. She’d be raised by a monster.
“Our Moon Woman is here! Light the torches! Ready the Clan!” The women of the Clan took up the greeting and the Gathering Site exploded into activity. From all directions they came to take their proper places. The movements of the women were practiced, and though they weren’t in perfect step with one another they wove a serpentine pattern through the trees, vegetables, and foliage with an earthy grace that reminded Mari of the rhythm of water flowing over river rock.
The Clan formed a semicircle to welcome their Moon Woman. Aged women first, then mothers with the Clan’s young beside them, then maidens of mating age all crowned with gaily woven headdresses, and then, finally, the Clansmen, who held torches and stood protectively around the edges of the clearing. Mari could feel their predatory presence—a barely controlled chaos that she could imagine drifting in dark, roiling eddies of unease throughout the gathering.
Mari couldn’t help glancing nervously at the men. Ever since she’d first realized as a young girl the changes that Night Fever brought to the Clan—the deadly melancholy it caused in women, and the dangerous madness it caused in men—she kept a watchful eye on any Clansmen, especially as sunset drew near.
“Don’t stare at them. It is Third Night. We will Wash them and all will be well,” her mama whispered to Mari.
Mari nodded tightly. “Lead the way, Mama. Jenna and I will be right behind you.”
Leda took one step forward and then paused. She held out her hand to Mari. “Not behind me. I would rather that you were beside me for all to see.”
Mari could feel the excitement in Jenna, but she hesitated before taking her mama’s hand. She searched Leda’s gray eyes, looking for reassurance.
“Trust me, sweet girl,” Leda said. “You know I have your back.”
Mari let out a long breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “I’ll always trust you, Mama.” She grasped Leda’s hand.
Beside her, Jenna whispered, “You’re practically a Moon Woman already!” Then, before Mari could respond, Jenna bowed respectfully again—this time to Leda and Mari—before taking her place behind them.
“Ready?” Leda asked.
“As long as I’m with you, Mama,” Mari said.
Leda squeezed her daughter’s hand and then strode confidently forward, head held high, shoulders back, with a wide smile beaming joy to her people.
“My daughter and I greet you, Weaver Clan, and wish you bounty the spring full moon brings times three!”
Mari felt the weight of the Clan’s curious looks and heard the muffled susurrus of speculation. She mimicked her mother’s stance, pulling back her shoulders, straightening her spine, and lifting her chin. She tried to look at everyone and no one, but her gaze was drawn to another pair of gray eyes. These were lighter, more blue-gray than the silver-gray of Leda’s and Mari’s eyes, but they were still remarkable, and still, definitely, belonging to a Clanswoman who carried the mark of a Moon Woman ancestor.
“Greetings, Moon Woman,” the girl said. She bowed low to Leda, but the position of her body made it clear that it was only Leda she acknowledged. When she straightened she tossed back her mane of dark hair, and the feathers and beads that hung from her Moon Crown fluttered around her as if she wore a living veil. Her gaze flicked to Mari dismissively before she added, “I didn’t realize you were acknowledging the Moon Women candidates tonight.”
Leda’s smile was serene. “Hello, Sora. Actually, this was an impromptu acknowledgment of pride in my daughter.” She lifted the hand that she’d linked with Mari so that the Clan was sure to see. “And part of that pride is that her gray eyes mark her as a Moon Woman candidate.”
“As do mine,” Sora said.
Mari stifled her irritated sigh and spoke up before her mother could respond. “Yes, but you’re usually so busy fluttering your eyelashes at our Clansmen that sometimes it’s hard to remember your eyes are gray.”
“Of course I pay attention to our Clansmen. It is only logical to show appreciation to our protectors. Mari, jealousy is unattractive, especially on someone who pays so little attention to her appearance,” Sora said.
“Arguing among Clanswomen is unacceptable,” Leda said sharply.
Sora and Mari shared a look of poorly disguised annoyance before they bowed their heads respectfully to the Moon Woman.
“You’re right, of course,” Sora said. “I apologize, Moon Woman.”
“It is not to me you owe the apology,” Leda said.
Sora turned to Mari. She smiled silkily, though the expression did not reach her eyes. “I apologize, Mari.”
“Mari?” Leda prompted when her daughter remained mute.
“I apologize, too,” Mari said quickly.
“Good,” Leda said. She held out her other hand to Sora. “And you are correct, Sora. Your eyes do mark you as candidate for Moon Woman apprenticeship. Please join me.”
Eagerly, Sora took Leda’s hand, but before stepping forward into the heart of the Clan, Leda raised her voice, calling, “All maidens with gray eyes present yourselves to your Moon Woman!”
There was a rustle in the crowd before them, and then a young girl stepped from the group.
“Mari?” Leda prompted under her breath.
Mari smiled at her mother and then extended her open hand toward the girl, welcoming her with, “Hello, Danita.” The younger girl was smiling tentatively at Mari and sending nervous glances to Leda as she moved to take her offered hand when a flush of light caught at Mari’s gaze. She glanced down to see that the sleeve of her cloak had fallen back, so that her outstretched forearm had been caught in a single, fading beam of sunlight and the filigree pattern of a fern frond was glowing brightly through the concealing clay.
In one swift movement, Mari jerked her hand free of her mother’s, rearranged the sleeves of her cloak, and wrapped her swathed arms around herself.
“What is it, sweet girl?” Leda quickly stepped between her daughter and the Clan, careful to conceal her.
“My—my stomach pains are back.” She met her mother’s gaze. Mari could see that Leda was trying valiantly to keep the disappointment from her expression, but her smile was melancholy and it didn’t lift the sadness in her eyes.
“Jenna,” Leda said. “Could you please take Mari to the hearth fire and ask one of the Mothers to brew her some chamomile tea? It seems she isn’t as well as we hoped.”
“Of course, Leda! Don’t worry about anything. I’ll take care of our girl.”
Jenna linked arms with Mari, pulling her into the crowd as Mari watched first Danita, and then another gray-eyed girl and another, take her place with Sora beside her mother.
“Don’t be sad,” Jenna whispered. “Some tea will fix you up. You can sit with me and we’ll gossip about those silly feathers in Sora’s hair while your mama Washes the Clan.” Jenna pointed to a log not far from the central campfire of the Gathering. “Sit there and rest. I’ll get your tea and be right back!”
“Thanks, Jenna,” Mari said, sitting on the log as Jenna scampered away. She felt the pitying eyes of Clanswomen on her, and managed to school her face into the impassive expression she put on for the Clan—never letting them know how much it hurt to be held apart from them—never letting them know how difficult it was to hide the truth from them.
She watched as her mama made
her way to the center of the Gathering Site. She stopped before the single idol that decorated the clearing. Leda dropped the girls’ hands she’d been holding, bowing deeply to the image of the Earth Goddess who seemed to be emerging from the forest floor. Her face was a smooth, carved river stone, creamy white and flecked with quartz crystals so that as light hit it—sunlight or the softer, cooler light of the moon—she glistened as if she had been formed from wishes and daydreams. Her skin was thick, soft moss. Her hair was a verdant fern that had been lovingly coaxed to cascade down the curve of her back and over the roundness of her shoulders.
“I greet you, Great Mother, as the Clan greets me—your Moon Woman—your servant, with love and gratitude and respect,” Leda said reverently. Then she straightened and faced the watching Clan. “Men of Clan Weaver, present yourselves to me!”
As the men made their way forward, Jenna joined Mari, handing her a wooden cup filled with fragrant chamomile tea before sitting beside her on the log.
“Oh look, there’s Father.” Jenna smiled and waved. The powerfully built man who led the men acknowledged her wave with a nod, though Mari could see that his face was set in lines of pain, and his eyes were narrowed against the anger that boiled within him with the setting of the sun.
It was an anger that would overflow if his Moon Woman didn’t Wash the Night Fever from him at least every Third Night.
With the other Clansmen, Xander dropped to his knees before Leda, and as he did so, the sun sank beneath the far western horizon. Mari saw her mother’s arms lift, as if she would cradle within them the full moon that wasn’t yet visible to the rest of the Clan, but which a Moon Woman could always find—could always call—as long as the sun had fled the sky.
Mari watched the gray tinge that had begun to spread up Leda’s arms fade and disappear. Her mother’s smile was radiant as she tilted back her head so that her face and her arms were open to the darkening sky. Leda’s breathing became deep and rhythmic. Automatically, Mari’s breathing deepened with her as she practiced the grounding exercise that preceded the drawing down ritual. Mari saw her mother’s lips moving as she communed privately with her Goddess and prepared herself.