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Moon Chosen, Page 4

P. C. Cast

  Which is why Dead Eye found himself there, five winters later, entering the forest that belonged to the Others.

  It drew him, that ancient pine forest, as the moon draws the tide. Unlike the rest of the People, the forest had long fascinated Dead Eye. Since he had discovered that their God was dead, he had come to believe the forest could very well hold more than enemies and death—it could hold answers.

  It was difficult, though, to be out there alone. There were no slick walls of glass and metal—no mazelike pathways through buildings that hid sanctuaries and escapes in equal measure. There was only unrelenting sky and the forest and the Others.

  Dead Eye stroked the puckered scar shaped like a trident on his forearm. The movement called attention to his skin. Cracks in his skin had begun to cluster around the creases of his wrists and elbows, radiating pain into his joints. A terribly familiar lethargy had begun to seep throughout his muscles. He set his teeth against its seductive pull.

  “I will not succumb.” Dead Eye forced the words from between his clenched teeth. “There will be more to my life than this never-ending cycle of disease and death. The Others do not come to the City, so I come to the forest instead. There must be a way, and since the God is dead, I must create the answers myself. I will find my own sign—my own sacrifice.” Dead Eye went to his knees, bowing his head. “Yes, there will be a sign, and when there is, I will take word to the People.”

  The forest around him went completely silent. Then, with a majesty that was second only to the image of the God that beckoned from the heart of the City, a stag stepped from the underbrush before him.

  With no hesitation, Dead Eye hurled himself at the beast, catching it as it leaped back, trying to scramble away from him. Dead Eye wrapped his arms around the stag’s neck and set his heels into the damp loam of the forest floor. The creature tried to rear and strike Dead Eye with his cloven hooves, but Dead Eye grasped his antlers and, using all of the strength in his massive arms, he began twisting the stag’s head—pulling it back and back—until the creature lost its balance and fell hard on its side where he lay struggling for breath and trembling.

  Dead Eye worked fast. He rammed his knee into the point between the stag’s head and neck, pinning it to the ground. Then he drew the triple-tipped dagger from the sheath on his belt and lifted it, preparing to drive it into the sweet spot on the stag’s spine that would paralyze the beast. But before Dead Eye could strike, the stag’s dark eye met his. Dead Eye saw his own reflection there as clearly as if he was standing before a mirror. With one hand he held the trident aloft. With the other he reached down, in a gesture that beckoned as if he had called the stag to him. In that reflection Dead Eye saw not himself, but the image of Her—the Reaper—the dead God.

  The power of understanding coursed through his body hot and rich and exciting.

  The sign was clear. Dead Eye had become the God! And he knew what he must do.

  “I am a Harvester! I will not slay. I will slake but not kill. Harvest but not cull. That is how I will make the People strong again. Then the Harvest can spread beyond the City—beyond the People—to the entire world.”

  He sheathed the knife and pulled a length of rope from the travel pack slung over his shoulder, tying the stag’s front and back legs together by the creature’s ankles. With the beast unable to struggle free, Dead Eye used a second rope to wrap around the stag’s neck, then he looped the end of that rope around a low-hanging branch of a young pine, stretching the creature up so that it was more interested in struggling to breathe than struggling to escape.

  It was then that Dead Eye unsheathed his flaying trident again. But instead of turning it on the stag, he pressed the triple blades against his arm, slicing across the cracks in his skin so that they wept pink fluid. Only then did he begin to fillet the flesh from the living stag.

  Dead Eye worked quickly and efficiently. He accepted the screams of the stag, drinking them in as if they were water to a man dying of thirst. He cherished every inch of the stag’s flesh, anointing the creature’s raw wounds with the tears from his own before packing each strip of the creature’s bloody hide carefully into his cracked skin. Though the stag’s flesh was alive and warm to the touch, it felt cool against his wounds, soothing the pain and inflammation there almost instantly.

  The stag came to the Sacred Place that marked the line between life and death much faster than Dead Eye would have imagined, but there was no mistaking the signs. One more strip of flesh and the beast would pass beyond life and begin embracing inevitable death. Dead Eye bowed his head, pressing his bloody hand against the trident mark on his forearm.

  “I thank you, my stag, for the gift of your life. I absorb it with gratitude.”

  But before Dead Eye could cut one more ribbon of scarlet from the creature’s hide, his gaze was again caught in the stag’s mirrored gaze. Dead Eye paused, mesmerized by the mighty image of himself as God.

  Slowly, Dead Eye began to understand.

  What would he expect from his God? Truth—righteous anger—compassion. And through his reflection in the stag’s eye, he found the answer.

  I am a Harvester, not a Reaper. I must deny myself the final stroke. I must free my messenger to complete the fate I have set him to by sharing my life and my wounds with him.

  Dead Eye brought the dagger down in two motions, cutting the noose around the stag’s neck and around his legs. Then he stepped back, watching the creature struggle to its feet. Eyes flashing white, skin raining a trail of scarlet tears, the creature staggered away.

  Dead Eye watched it go and his gaze was drawn to the distance where the sugar pines grew to mammoth heights, great sentinels that stood guard over the mystery and magick that waited beyond the dead City with the Others.

  Dead Eye smiled.


  It was an uphill climb to Mari’s burrow, but she was used to the effort it took to reach the safety of their home. As she came to the first of the nettle thicket Mari shed some of the constant watchfulness she, or anyone who wasn’t looking for their death, had to maintain in the forest at night. Instead of avoiding the knife-tipped bushes, Mari entered their domain boldly, stepping easily around the thickening clumps of stinging plants. She only paused when she came to what appeared to be a wall of thorns. She bent and picked up one of two well-worn walking sticks hidden beneath the branches, using it to hold aside thick arms of the sticky nettles, only to release them to fall back into their protective wall after she’d passed.

  It was slower going here, though still uphill. The hidden pathways through the nettle grove were labyrinthine, but Mari knew their secrets. The grove had been planned, planted, and nurtured by generations of Moon Women to conceal their burrow.

  Earth Walkers all lived in burrows they created from the living earth, usually choosing difficult, hidden places for their homes. Women tended to group their burrows together. Men, even those who were mated, lived apart from the Clanswomen, as Night Fever made cohabitation as dangerous as it was difficult. But the Clan didn’t hide from one another. The women simply controlled day-to-day life—raising children, growing crops, weaving and counseling and lawmaking. Men hunted and served as protectors.

  In the matriarchal Clan world, the ultimate leader for each Clan was their Moon Woman. She not only held the power to Wash the Clan of Night Fever, she was their Healer—legend even said a Clan’s Moon Woman held the true Spirit of the Clan within her protection, and as long as she thrived, the Clan thrived.

  As Mari made her way through the maze of nettles she felt as if the grove embraced her, hiding her and protecting her much as did her mother. Gently, she lifted aside the last thick nettle branch and stepped within a moss-carpeted entryway behind which was the high arch that framed the thick wooden door to their burrow. Carved into the arch was the lovely figure of the Earth Mother. Her sides were worn smooth and shiny from the reverent touch of the generations of Moon Women who had lived safely, securely, and happily within the cave.

“And that’s why it is forbidden for all except a Moon Woman and her daughters to know the location of her burrow,” Mari spoke to the silent carving. “The Spirit of the Clan must be hidden and safe if the Clan is to continue to thrive.” She approached the door and, mimicking her mama’s movements, touched her fingers to her lips and then pressed them to the side of the Earth Mother. “Please watch over Mama and bring her safely home,” she murmured.

  The inside of the burrow welcomed her with familiar sights and scents and she shrugged off her cloak and went straight to the washing bucket. Mari dipped her hands in the cool water and splashed it over her face and arms, scrubbing off the hardened clay and the concealing dirt, sloughing off the uncomfortable disguise she was forced to wear daily. She dried her face and arms, ignoring the matted feel of her hair, and muttered to herself. “I wish…” she began as she went to her desk and sat. She picked up the unfinished sketch of Leda, speaking the words to it that she would never allow herself to be so unfeeling to speak to her mama in person.

  “Mama, I wish you’d never met him. I wish you had loved one of the Clansmen. I wish I could be like everyone else. Then I could truly stand beside you without it causing us to be banished, or worse.”

  Mari mentally shook herself. “This isn’t helping. It’s only making me sad. I need to snap out of it before Mama gets home. She’ll already be worried about me and exhausted from Washing the Clan. She’s always worried about me—and the Clan always exhausts her.” Mari paused and then whispered the thought that was never far from her mind every Third Night when her mama was gone. “I hate them. I hate the Scratchers. They use her and use her. Someday they’re going to use her up.”

  Sweet girl, don’t hate your Clan. You hold my heart, but I hold the Spirit of the Clan. It is my fondest wish that someday you will hold their Spirit, too.

  Her mother’s admonishment drifted through Mari’s imagination, and she forced her thoughts to lighten, and focus on the one thing that always brought her joy—her sketching. She studied the drawing of her mother, really seeing it with her sharp, artist’s eyes. Yes, the hands were out of perspective, but that was really an easy fix. What she had done perfectly was to capture her mother’s face. Though Leda was Moon Woman, and the soul of the Clan, she was as plain in appearance as were most of her people. Leda was thick-browed, wide-nosed, and narrow-lipped. But in Mari’s sketch, her mother’s thin lips were lifted in a brilliant smile that was reflected in the one feature of hers that was truly remarkable, her wide, silver-gray eyes.

  “Now that, I got perfect.”

  Automatically, Mari turned to the hand-sized oval of precious glass that sat in its place beside the pots of ink, quills, and charcoal pencils on her desk. She lifted it and gazed into its magickal surface.

  The newly scrubbed girl that looked back did not have her mother’s face, though she did have her wide, silver-gray eyes. Mari touched her hair, feeling the familiar stiffness of it that was caused by the thick dye her mother applied to it weekly, keeping the color of it dark and muddy, like brackish water. “Like the rest of the Scratchers,” Mari said with resignation. She shook her head and spoke to her reflection. “No. You shouldn’t complain. It keeps you alive. It keeps them from knowing the truth about you.”

  The motion of her head made her hair move, and even in the dim light of the glows her excellent night vision, inherited from her mother, caught a flash of daylight within the mirror. Staring in the reflective surface, Mari pulled a long, errant curl from under the matted mess. She wrapped it around her finger, reveling in the softness of it. “It is the color of sunlight. I’d almost forgotten.”

  Mari studied her reflection more closely. Yes, she’d been right to look carefully. Her brows shimmered in the light of the cave, their true blond color peeking through the dark dye.

  “Mama was right as usual. Time to dye it again,” she mumbled.

  Not that it mattered all that much. When she went out tomorrow, if she went out tomorrow, if the sun was covered well enough by clouds, Mari would be sure she camouflaged the true blond of her brows and her face with the muddy paste she and her mother had spent eighteen winters perfecting—thickening her features and transforming her into that which she was not—a full-blood Earth Walker.

  Mari traced the line of her clean brow, delicate where her mother’s was thick, down her face to her high, well-formed cheekbones, then over her small, straight nose.

  “I see you, Father,” she whispered to the mirror. “It’s the only way I will ever see you, but I do. I see you in me, and I know the story. Mama will never forget. I will never forget. How could I? Every day my differences remind me of you.”

  Mari put the mirror down and began to sort through the pile of what her mother believed were unfinished sketches—sketches Mari knew Leda would not look at without her permission. Near the bottom of the pile she found it, and pulled the long, slim sheet out.

  The sketch was done in black ink, made from boiling walnuts. She’d used only the sharpest of her quills to produce the intricate lines needed to bring the scene alive. It showed a tall man whose facial features, except for his eyes, mimicked Mari’s. He was standing beside a waterfall smiling at a plain young woman who gazed at him adoringly through her mother’s eyes while she held an infant, swaddled in the soft, thick fronds of a Mother Plant. And beside the man was the rough outline of a large, ever-watchful canine.

  “You met by accident,” Mari said softly, tracing her finger over the sketch of her father. “She shouldn’t have allowed you to see her, but she did. She shouldn’t have loved you, but she did. She said that she knew your heart the first moment she looked into your face because she saw such kindness there.” Mari paused, her finger moving from the sketch to her own face again. “She says she sees you in my face, too. But we have to hide—we have to hide what was between you because Companions and Earth Walkers cannot join, cannot love.” She smoothed the paper carefully with her hand, as if she would touch the father she could never meet. Then she chose her favorite quill, dipped it in the ink, and began to sketch over her father’s skin the delicate patterns that would glow from just beneath his flesh as he absorbed the sunlight that gave Companions the ability to turn that which once had destroyed the world to that which had created a new world order.

  The same delicate patterns that glowed from beneath Mari’s flesh, but would never, ever glow from beneath Leda’s skin, or the skin of any true Earth Walker.

  Mari bent her head over the paper and worked through the night perfecting the sketch and thinking of the story her mother had told her over and over again—how she and this man who should have captured her, enslaved her, and been repulsed by her, had instead loved her. How they had met in secret, discovering the hidden beauty of Leda’s body, and the miraculous kindness of Galen’s heart. How Mari had been created from their love, and how Leda had been planning to run away with him—to begin their own Tribe somewhere far away, deep in another forest where there were no Companions or Earth Walkers, there were only Leda and Galen and the baby they swore to love.

  “Oh, and you, too.” Mari paused in her contemplation of the sketch and touched the rough outline of the canine. “I know your name, Orion, and I know your story, too. But I don’t know your face.” In her life, Mari had only glimpsed canines four times, and then from a distance so great that she saw only their silhouettes, never their faces.

  “Fear canines—flee felines—take to the ground or you will be found.” Mari whispered the warning all Earth Walkers knew. “But there is more to the story than that,” she mused as she worked on shading Orion’s fur. Leda had told her that the Companions reflected their canines—that the Leader Shepherds were noble and brave, and that the Hunter Terriers were clever and true, and that when they chose the person that they would be bonded with for life, that person also had those wonderful traits.

  “Then why do the Companions enslave us and treat us as if we are animals?”

  There was no reply in the silent cave and Ma
ri sighed again, wishing she could get real answers to her questions. Her mother, of course, told her that her father’s canine had been a mighty Shepherd, that he had not been evil or mean. He had been everything a noble beast should be and everything her father, his Companion, had been—loyal and loving, kind and brave. “She says your fur was thicker than a rabbit’s and softer than a fawn’s. I wish I could have known you. I wish I could finish your picture.”

  As if she’d just broken the surface after a deep dive, Mari shook herself. That was an impossible wish.

  “They killed you before we could get away,” Mari said. “You and my father.” Her gaze went to the infant version of herself swaddled in the life-changing fronds of the Mother Plant. “They caught you taking the Mother Plant’s fronds for me, and they killed you because you would not betray us to them.” Mari closed her eyes, for once wishing her imagination wasn’t so vivid, and that she couldn’t picture the death scene so perfectly in her mind. Even though eighteen winters had passed since the terrible thing had happened, Leda could not speak of it without weeping.

  “They followed him to our meeting place, trying to trap me and you, sweet girl. But your father had told me to always, always remain hidden until he called for me. That horrible day, he must have known something was wrong, because he did not call me from my hiding place. I had waited silently with you, smiling and thinking that he was testing me, being sure you and I would be safe.

  “But it wasn’t a test. The Warrior sprang on him and tried to force him to give us away to them. My Galen, your noble father, refused. He and Orion died for that refusal.”

  “You didn’t give us away, but you left us to this life of hiding.” Mari pushed her matted hair back from her face. “I know it wasn’t your fault. And Mama, she’s done her best. She’s kept me safe all this time—loved me and been my best friend—given me a life, even though she mourns you every day.” Mari smiled sadly at the man in the sketch, wondering for the millionth time how either he or her mother could have ever believed they could make a life together. “Not in this world,” she told him and his ghost. “Not in this lifetime. I know you don’t want to hear this, but the truth is I’m sorry you and Mama met. Mama would have found a Clansman to love, and I would have been born looking like, feeling like, a normal Earth Walker. Mama wouldn’t be so alone. I wouldn’t be so alone.”