Fantasy Fiction

By Any Other Name
The Towers of Zolyniak
A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy
Marion the Unmagical
The Road to Udupi
The Thief of Cardinal Falls (Part 1)
The Treasure of Totowa Hills (Part 2)
Seeress (Part 3)


©Melissa Katherine Michael
7800 words

BY Melissa Katherine Michael

Lying back on a hard bough swaying in the slight breeze, Lita closed her eyes to the canopy of leaves scintillating like a shower of green sparks and opened her mind to the thoughts of the sleepy tree lizard on the branch above her. His torpor was nothing new, hardly exciting, so she sent her consciousness down and under the Dead River to dart among the currents with the tiny silver fish. But the water was sun-warmed so far away from its source in the Totowa Hills. It was this drearily usual, oppressive, and muggy heat that she wished to escape. Occasional drops sounded on the forest floor though no rain had fallen today. Out east, beyond the Dead, the creatures were different, interesting. She’d go there if it wasn’t madness. If one returned from such a place.
Beneath the strangely convoluted trees of the forest between the Totowa and Dead rivers a very worried creature jumped at the slight sound of a nearby twig jumper’s launch.
Lita looked closer.
“Oh me, oh my, if I, don’t die, my children cry, for food and I, can’t find it.”
Nothing but the mundane worry and constant preoccupation of every living creature in the jungle behind her, the forest before her, from the highest reach of canopy to the forest floor, throughout the air, and under the waters. Lita wished to soar above it all. She belonged to the sky yet was chained to earth and the mortal realm by her foul ugly body. Too big and clumsy to be a true Arut, too outlandish and bestial to be a true Umaca.
Suddenly she was wheeling in the sky above the leafy treetops. The hawk’s mind she touched was looking for food and aggressors to its territory, but Lita ignored that and felt only the wind cooling her feathers, the sun scorching her back, until a food motion some hundreds of feet below jerked her into a dive. The sense of sheer speed was nothing Lita would ever experience in her own body, limited as it was by clawless hands, from stopping a controlled fall from the tree heights as her nest brothers did. A darker green dot became a break in the trees became a well of death into which she plunged. Forest floor rushing up to meet her body. Then--
--a shriek of pain and sorrow filled her mind.
“My babies! My babies will cry and I--”
She lighted on the branch of one of the convoluted trees her beak ripping morsels of fresh raw flesh from between her talons. Hot blood and meat satisfying the gnawing ache in her belly.
Lita sat up blinking at the ceiling of sparkling green jewels above her. She didn’t like seeing a creature die, especially knowing its dependents were rendered so much dead meat by the same act; and the hawk’s satisfaction only amplified the emptiness of her own belly. She ate twice as much as any Arut yet felt as if she was starving. They all stopped growing at 6 years and she was several older than 10 and still grew.
Yet that was not what had awakened her, or rather, since her mind had not slept, called her awareness back to this location, that of her body. It was a loud thrashing and whipping along with the pain-filled shrieks of many entities.
Lita hopped up to crouch and sniff at the air. Odd, odd smells; new and different; intriguing. Quickly she leapt and climbed from tree to tree in the direction of the disturbance until she could see with her own eyes. Man-like creatures wearing all manner of coverings pulled huge furred four-legged animal creatures on leashes. 5 humans, 6 big creatures, and 8 smaller furred ones, all the animals with great packs on their backs. The humans had hair only on their heads, like the Umaca, like Lita herself. The Arut were furred over all their bodies. Then, Lita noticed a small manikin on the white-haired one’s shoulder, like the little poison-dart throwers she’d heard rumored lived in the west, a story the Arut scared their young with. Two humans hacked again and again at the green creatures to make a path for all of them.
A path toward the Dead.
“Don’t go, don’t go,” she called mind to mind with the beasts, a hard shell surrounded the human’s minds like a protective cover. It reeked of shaman magic. The beasts snorted and rebelled. But when the dark-haired human beat them on the snouts with the flat of her hand, sending bright sparks of pain shooting through Lita’s face, she jerked back, mind and body, and barely caught herself before tumbling to the ground perilously far below.
These man-things were worse than the Umaca who held jungle sows in captivity to breed for food pigs. They didn’t beat them and ride them, force them to carry heavy burdens. In horror, Lita wheeled about and lunged for the nearest tree on the path home.
Dusk had fallen when she reached the nest. The elders sniffed her and grunted with disdain, “What? No food, Lita?”
“No,” she moaned and groveled like a child though she was of an age to be an elder. “See bad people. Scare me. Want nest.”
Vunta was immediately forgiving and welcomed her into his shaggy arms. “Good Lita. Nest safe. Bring food tomorrow.”
Gna came close and passed a fruit to Lita who ate it quickly then dropped to sleep, her head in Vunta’s hairy lap.
Liquid running between her thighs woke her with a lurch. Vunta sat up beside her, sniffing for danger. She’d felt queasy in her middle yesterday, that being the real reason she’d shirked her food gathering. The queasiness remained. Vunta gripped her shoulders from behind and pushed her forward. He mounted her and was pushing a stick past her ass before her own stench registered and she realized what was happening.
She was finally a woman.
And Vunta was mounting her as a man. Dear, old, trusted Vunta. With a shriek of rage that rent the nest from its peaceful slumbers, Lita tore herself away from Vunta’s lustful grip and vaulted for the cool embrace of the green creatures. She searched ahead with her mind’s eye and saw their reaching arms guiding her to safety, away from the pack of males pouring out of the nest in pursuit. Lacking her inner vision they were soon left behind.
Horrified by the bloody trail she left, Lita dropped down to wash in the Totowa River. But the blood kept coming! How was it the Arut females arched their backs and crooned invitingly at such a time?
Lita had always known she was different, even remembered her first family who’d cast her out on the Farview River to die so many years ago. Her own mother had refused to give milk but, hearing her sobs, the sow had invited her into the sty. That was Lita’s last memory of her first home with the Umaca far to the north.
She continued following the Totowa south, again cast upon the waters, again leaving a home she never really had. She kept alert to night predators as she walked along the river bank, remembering how the Arut wandering far afield had taken her back to their nest and raised her as one of their own. Who would take her in now? The Umaca screamed and threw rocks if she came near a village.
After several days the blood ended and Lita was at last freed of the cloud of midges, and trailing predators it drew. The Totowa turned and headed nearly due west. Lita was at a crux. She could turn back, and if she approached with arms full of food, the Arut would surely accept her back into the nest. Or she could continue on and see what there was to be seen. At present, she favored the latter. Food grew everywhere in the jungle and any high, wide branch was a bed.
Her reverie was disturbed by sounds. Quick as a koonoot Lita climbed the nearest green creature and hid in its leaves. She peered below and sniffed the breeze. It was the same long line of humans and beasts she had seen headed toward the Dead, now headed west, back the way they’d come.
Minus one. The older scowling one.
The humans sat astride the larger beasts and the smaller ones bore great heavy burdens now, much heavier than before.
“Why do you not leave these cruel masters? Why do you bear their burdens for them?” Lita asked to their simple, honest, and open minds.
“Fed regular,” one horse snorted practically.
“Not beat much,” an ass added.
“Sweet alfalfa sometimes.”
The others made agreeing noises.
Lita was stunned. She’d been shocked by the behavior, so different from her own. Could see no sense in it. But their answers demanded thought. She couldn’t conceive of what it would be like to be fed regularly, of an amount to fill her cavernous belly. Would it be worth trading her freedom? Lita tried to imagine carrying things for these humans and having a full belly at night in exchange.
She felt a presence searching through the trees, similar to what she did when looking through the world of life for something interesting, but lacking her precision. One of the humans must have overheard her conversation with the beasts. She threw a nothing about herself and thought like a tree-beetle. A big tree-beetle. The searching query passed over her, then back again; the mind behind it mighty indeed, yet young and inexperienced like a novice, easily fooled by Lita’s nothing.
Burning with curiosity, Lita followed the company, safely hidden in the heights of the trees. She realized why she’d not heard their thoughts before, the first time she’d seen them making for the Dead. They’d had a nothing thrown about them. She’d never seen one used before, staying far, far from Umaca shamans. Knowing it for what it was, she easily saw beyond the nothing to the quick, complicated thoughts freely flowing through each mind. She knew nothing of their foreign speech as they talked and laughed among themselves, having been raised by the Arut who used a vocabulary of about 300 guttural sounds. Yet she saw in their minds the picture of their recent business beyond the Dead and their hopes and expectations for the pretty colored rocks carried by their beasts.
An hour before sunset, they stopped and unloaded the beasts to let them feed from the local greenery. The humans pulled out parcels from their packs and the one that had nearly detected Lita’s presence earlier, the witch, made fire catch to wood then went to sit alone. The child-sized but full-grown one took a pot of water and began cooking over it. Like the Umaca. But these were not Umaca. She was short like an Arut but thicker even than the much taller humans. The tall one with brown hair, the witch, had powers like the village shaman, but she was not at all like him.
Him, for only a man could become shaman. A girl-child showing any powers to call the wind, to turn stone, to speak with animals, was killed. Unless her mother journeyed far into the jungle and tied her to a raft in the forlorn hope that she’d be adopted further down a foreign river. As Lita was.
The human with light yellow hair tied back into one long rope cautiously approached the witch with a large box in her hand. The witch smiled and patted the ground beside her. Together they opened the box and turned leaf after leaf that was inside it talking to each other about abstract concepts Lita couldn’t hope to decipher at her present stage of language development.
The child-sized one announced food was ready and they all came forward with bowls and took their share. Then they used metal sticks to lift the cooked stew to their mouths. Lita knew the Umaca cooked food but she could not remember its taste. The smell was odd but her stomach rumbled, longing to give it a try. After the eating, the child-sized one and the one too young to possess such white hair stood with the yellow-haired one and the three played some kind of Umaca warrior’s game with sharp metal cutters.
They were all female, Lita realized at last. She’d known from the full chests and thin shoulders that some were, but they all were, even the manikin now snoring on the white-haired one’s fallen bag. Traveling far from their homes without a male. Maybe they were like her, outcasts.
Welcome friend.
The mental message was unmistakable though Lita’s mind had no context for the words. She jumped blindly in fright, barely grasping a hanging vine and pulling herself to the next highest branch.
Come share our fire and food.
Lita called the nothing and fled into the night followed by sincere thoughts of contrition and friendly curiosity.
But strange beasts never approached one another like that! It was madness to invite a stranger into one’s nest. Did they wish to die? Just as soon beg a jungle cat to eat one! Outsiders introduced themselves by challenge, not invitation. How had this party survived so long in this fierce jungle with that mode of operation? Asking a predator to come into the nest and eat the food. Absurd!
In time the witch’s mind faded and Lita found a comfortably wide branch on which to lay her body for sleep. What could they want with her but to eat her, like the Umaca?
No, Lita argued with herself. Their spoor told decisively they were not meat-eaters, much less man-eaters. But what did the witch want of her? For surely she lured Lita toward their camp for their gain. Anyone who enslaved beasts was not to be trusted. Yet Lita’s conscience pricked at her. The beasts were not at all unhappy with their lot. The seemed to have a cooperative working arrangement and looked forward to the days they’d be stabled and do nothing but eat.
All right. If she couldn’t mistrust them because of the way they treated the four-legged creatures, what about their eating habits? They blithely walked through a forest full of food with beasts to bear it, yet they ate old, dried things that had to be watered and cooked to be rendered edible. Occasionally they took a fruit, but only if it hung within arm’s reach.
Odd, weird, bizarre, peculiar, unnatural. Lita should stay away from these queer creatures. They came from far away and were now leaving. They knew next to nothing of how to travel, much less live, in the jungle. So . . . what was it like where they came from? Were they so deaf and blind that their noise and spoor seemed invisible? Did only beasts do all the work and the humans only eat and talk? Were children given a beast at birth or did they have to catch and tame their own? Perhaps as a rite of passage. Was status among their tribes determined by the number of beasts and pretty rocks one had?
Lita shivered at a chilling thought. Did they make so much noise and leave such a clear trail because the trails were so beaten by so many people where they came from theirs was rendered invisible? And even more chilling, did they possess so much prowess that they simply were unafraid of who or what might trail them?
They certainly didn’t fear her.
In the morning Lita bathed, drank, and searched for fruits and greens before turning to the company’s campsite. They were long gone, but the path of destruction and beast spoor they left was like an arrow pointing after them. Within a few hours Lita caught up with their slow lumbering pace through trees and over soft ground and set about watching from the heights of the green creatures. Again at sunset they stopped and made a campfire. Lita crept close but held the nothing clutched tightly about herself. The child-sized cook carried a big leaf full of the cooked food out away from the fire and laid it on a wide branch.
Lita was stunned. Did they have too much food that they were putting the extra out before they even ate their own? Were they inviting all predators into their nest to feast? She was mystified by their behavior, yet insatiably curious also, for they ate well. She’d been vaguely jealous all day at the way food seemed to appear from their packs. Three times a day, every day, they sat and gorged. They only pulled fruit from the trees as a special treat, not because they had nothing else, as she did, but purely for fun, for exotic enjoyment.
She waited until all but the child-sized one were asleep. That one never slept but walked a slow circle about their camp at some distance from the others patting the sharp metal head of the long wooden pole that hung at her belt. When her circle was farthest away, Lita slipped down and snatched the leaf of food then scampered up one-handed to sit on the highest branch that would hold her weight. She ate every bit of the food delighted at its taste but absolutely enraptured by the resultant strained bloat of her belly.
She slept late then rooted around the remains of their camp before setting off at a brisk pace to catch up to the women. She was starting to get their names. Honeysuckle was the witch. Corry the child-sized one who was a grown woman, Arlin had the unnatural white hair, Heide was the sprite on her shoulder most of the time, and Surya had the yellow hair. Perie Ann was the beast handler with dark hair like Lita’s own. Lita tried to hate that woman but Perie Ann’s inner heart was so fond of the beasts she enslaved that Lita just couldn’t.
When the party stopped for their noon gorge-and-rest Lita laid back on a branch. Normally she would set off to find fruits for her own midday meal and take up the trail again as it suited her, but she was still so stuffed from the previous night’s feast, she laid back and drowsed along with the others many feet below on the forest floor.
She woke with a start to see a tiny face peering at her. Lita jumped up. She’d smelled the poison of the dart-throwing tribe of sprites for days now and had chosen her resting places accordingly.
“Please don’t go,” Heide begged holding out a tiny hand.
Lita recognized this sprite from the party. She could not understand the words but could read volumes in the tone of her voice and the sentiment of her mind. She’d known that sooner or later she would have to confront them or watch them disappear. They were going somewhere far beyond her world back to their own. Would she just shadow them forever? That didn’t seem likely. The little sprite meant well, but Lita shivered in fright, every instinct insisting she flee such a strange, potentially dangerous creature.
“I brought you a present.”
Heide pulled at the strings tying a bundle to her back. “You’re mighty impressive to Honey. I don’t see what’s so special about you, but she does.”
Awkwardly, Heide removed and unwrapped the pale blue stone. She held it out to Lita.
“Go on. Take it. It’s for you.”
Lita was mystified. Why did they give her things? What did they want in return? What awful burden of debt was she placing herself under by accepting? She cautiously reached out a hand palm up, still afraid that at any moment the sprite would attack, and allowed Heide to place the stone on it. She looked from it to Heide. They evidently thought something was very special about these stones. Four of the asses carried two bags each of such stones. Perhaps, the pale blue color meant . . . Lita touched it to her tongue.
Though Heide made no sound, Lita felt stern disapproval. She quickly snatched the stone down to her lap. But what was she to do with it? No good for eating or drinking. She had no beasts to bear it for her and needed her two hands for climbing.
The sprite stepped closer along the branch. Lita forced her body to remain still while the sprite reached up to pull at her hair. Using the strings that she’d carried it with, Heide bound the stone into the thick, dark mat. She smiled and cooed at the result.
Lita looked down at the blue stone resting in her hair. It was beautiful. Was that their purpose? Would these women return to their tribe with stones for decorating their hair? She looked up but Heide was gone.
After the evening eating, at Honey’s direction, Surya and Corry unbraided and brushed out each other’s hair. Lita was fascinated by the display. What could it mean? Was it a mating ritual? The Umaca painted their bodies and twisted fingerbones into their hair in elaborate designs for different reasons: mating, pregnancy, hunting, war, death. Lita didn’t follow the customs but knew of them from a great distance. But Surya and Corry didn’t tie stones into their hair, they just neatly wrapped it back into the long ropes. The other women wore theirs much shorter and unbound.
A thought struck. They’d been grooming each other, like any nestlings. Like she hadn’t been groomed by Vunta or Gna in too long. Like she might never be groomed again. Lita heaved a forlorn sigh as she continued to watch the women.
Now Heide addressed the group and told about a filthy wild animal she’d confronted earlier in the day, shivering in fear, unable to understand the simplest speech or gesture. It was shaped the same as the man-eaters, but didn’t have their grossly distended lips, clay make-up, bone jewelry, or indeed, any clothes at all.
An animal, like the dumb beasts of burden who carried their stupid stones. That’s all she was to them, Lita thought indignantly from her observation perch high above the company, safe and concealed in her nothing. The party had reached Turtle Lake and were winding north around its western side. Trees were thinning and the ground was soft and wet further west where it dipped into the Thriving Swamp.
“There’s no harm to feed her,” Honeysuckle said to the assembled companions.
Surya and Perie Ann nodded. Corry shrugged.
“Yes, there is,” Arlin said, facing Honeysuckle squarely. “She could lead danger to us quite unintentionally. Heide said she’s a man-eater. They’ve already attacked us unprovoked. You said she has magic. Our supplies are low. We need to push on and get out of this place.”
“Heide just finished saying she doesn’t at all look like a man-eater,” Honeysuckle countered.
“More like a hairless ape,” Heide injected.
“She’s no threat to us. I want to know more about her. Corry, put her food a little closer to our camp tonight.”
Corry looked to Arlin who gave a barely perceptible nod before agreeing.
Lita took the food again without being seen, under cover of darkness, marveling that they gave it freely without asking any in return. Theirs were so similar to, yet different from, the customs of the nest that Lita was scared, but the food was so good she couldn’t bear to leave it.
Days later Lita watched as the company filled water bags and headed north away from Turtle Lake. She decided to stay behind and enjoy swimming for a while longer. Their trail was so loud and obvious she could catch them anytime she wanted. If she wanted. Lita was more than a little hurt that these odd humans whom she had begun to think of as kindred spirits regarded her as no more than the beasts that hauled their food and stones for them.
These women were like the man-eaters, the Umaca, who confined wild sows only to eat their babies and confined the green creatures to eat their bodies. Not like the Arut who ate fruits and flowers and leaves and occasionally roots without destroying the whole creature; taking only what was needed to keep life in their bodies. If that was what it meant to be human, Lita would rather be a dumb animal. She snorted in derision, just because they were deaf to the animal’s speech, they thought them dumb.
Thinking of the Arut, she heard their minds’ cries for her.
“Want Lita.”
“Find good Lita.”
“Nest far and far. Bring Lita to nest.”
“Lita scared to mate. Not Arut. No mate Lita.”
“Everything Lita want, if Lita come back nest.”
Lita felt a rush of affection for her family, yet why should they journey so far to search for her?
Then it came as a cold slap to her mind, their eager memories of Lita bringing armloads of fruits to the nest then going out again for another armload of greens. Lita building a crude roof to keep off the worst of the rain. Lita hauling the sick or injured up into the nest. Lita making toys and games for the young ones. Lita crooning to the old ones. Lita turning male mating challenges into funny wrestling matches.
She had been their beast of burden all along and had not even known it.
Lita moaned low and loud, the sound torn from her gut by feelings she could not begin to understand. Water tracks stung as they ran from her eyes and mucus burned as it ran from her nose. She gasped a breath and moaned again, but this one broke into sobs. There was an ache growing within her. Something the close safety of the nest could never fulfill even if she could turn time back to once again have that ignorant innocence in her life. In her self.
Lita swam out to where a large flat rock sat above the waterline. She crawled up and lay down, letting the heat of the rock warm her front, and that of the sun, her back. She lay with her head and arm dangling forward almost into the water. A big turtle swam slowly toward her, curious at the strange, possibly edible things wiggling at the water’s surface. Lita giggled realizing the turtle sought to nibble her fingertips. The turtle darted away at the sudden sound.
Such a wealth of water, all in one place and not flowing like the rivers that bordered Arut territory.
Lita flapped slowly past, looking down at the water occasionally. She rode the mind of a great sea bird lost in a long ago storm ever searching for his home, a much, much bigger expanse of water than this tiny lake. Lita felt an uneasy surge of amazement. How small was her world?
She looked into the hearts of the green creatures growing from the lakebottom slime. Peace. Perhaps she should stay all alone for a time. Her life had become so disturbed since she first laid eyes on the foreign women.
Lita saw a face reflected in the water now grown still. She started then remembered where she’d seen such a face before. Like the trees and sky reflected in the water, so did her own face. It looked different from the last time she’d seen it, longer, less round. Still the same ugly, hairless, non-Arut nevertheless. And it didn’t look like the Umaca with whom to forgo clay decoration meant one was old or sick enough for the stew-pot. And she didn’t have the elongated bottom lip.
Lita sat up in astonishment. That face looked like those of the traveling women, more than either the Umaca or the Arut. Did she really belong to their tribe? No. She was born Umacan and had lived as an Arut. Was it now time to live as they did? Clothed, well-fed, mounted on beastback?
She craved to know more. More than the Arut, more than the man-eating Umaca. She was on fire with curiosity about the things the women discussed all day while they rode and at night while eating around the fire. What Honey and Surya saw in the box of markings they looked at each night. What Corry and Arlin were doing with their blades.
They lived in a secret realm visible to her eyes but maddeningly inaccessible to her mind. They thought in words she had no pictures for. They dreamed at night of beautiful males and huge crowded human villages, of rocky earth rising miles high, so high that it was covered with cold white ice, something Lita had no experience of. They spoke of vast plains where not a tree grew, and of forests of trees completely different from the ones Lita had lived with her whole life. She craved to see these things and to understand and walk among them as easily as these women did.
The day had passed into dusk leaving Lita with little to do but wait till morning to pick up the trail again. She felt peaceful now that she had decided to follow them, now that she no longer resisted the compulsion to follow them. Her mind was as good as theirs. She hoped. Honey seemed to think so. Honey wanted to meet her and teach her things. Honey couldn’t see what the animals saw like Lita could. Lita would show her that.
Suddenly a hideous apparition appeared in mid-air as though floating above Turtle Lake. The red-clay-covered face was old, its skin hanging in wrinkles and folds down to the thin neck. Bloody feathers and grey bones were knotted in its yellowed locks of hair.
It was Stotra, a ghoul out of her worst nightmares.
Where are the demon warriors? his voice boomed commanding in her mind. Do you know them?
No! Lita answered. Stotra was the shaman of the Umaca village on the bank of the Jwala where she had been born. He it was who’d exiled her from the tribe. Her mother had stolen her away far into the forest to cast her upon the Farview River from whence she’d floated south to where it passed close to the Totowa and the nest.
Stotra roared with amusement. Think to fool me, Little Animal? The Arut have taught you nothing. Go back to your trees and hide, for true-men will wreak vengeance on these demons who have killed Chieftain Pinca.
The apparition was gone. Lita blinked in surprise then began laughing aloud in relief. The demons he so feared were just five women and a sprite. But now Lita could not sleep. She headed north away from Turtle Lake in the darkness knowing she’d find the party’s exact trail with the morning sun.
When she finally caught up with them after a day of hard travel, Lita wanted to fling herself into their camp and warn them of Stotra’s intentions. But she didn’t have the words. And something mystical was going on. Honey sat outside a circle she’d torn in the earth and the others solemnly brought forth items that Lita could see were precious to them; a large colored stone, a ring, a necklace, a leaf of markings.
When all was assembled Honey began chanting a song that sent shivers of power up Lita’s spine. She was distracted by Arlin’s pronounced bitterness. It seemed they were out of food and still a few days from their goal, yet Honey refused to continue on, and all for that wild girl. Lita sat up on the branch to which she clung and cocked her head in thought. They’d been waiting here at the forest’s edge for her and Honey wasn’t going to leave the forest until she’d tried once more to befriend her.
The others saw only the items leave the circle and new things take their place, but Lita saw a window into another realm where a thin, pale, beautiful, fragile-looking woman indeed wore colored stones in her hair. By Honey’s anxious attitude Lita inferred that this was a person of great importance to the party.
“Master Wizard Honeysuckle!” the beauteous woman said in great surprise. Behind her were great solid walls like the inside of a huge tree worked to bright smoothness and hung with colored cloths. “Is all well with you and your companions?”
“Oh yes, Noble Lady Lillian. We are well and are on our return journey from the discovery of a great treasure trove. Heide and Arlin send you this great green stone to honor the Greenwood.” As she spoke, Honeysuckle passed each item into the circle and into the pale, beautiful woman’s astonished hands. “Corry sends this necklace of unsurpassed workmanship to honor your beauty and grace. Perie Ann who is unknown to you sends you this ring of five metals to honor the cooperation of the five races. And Surya who is also unknown to you sends this, our only copy of the map leading to the site where more treasure and many mysteries await, should you wish them.”
Lita perceived the pleasure of the chieftess as she showered her thanks at the unexpected gifts. But then her tone turned serious. “And you, Master Wizard Honeysuckle?”
Lita curiously felt Honey wince at the incongruity of her name with her formal title.
“What gift have you for the elves of Greenwood?”
Honey smiled. “I’m afraid I come only to beg a boon.”
The elf queen smiled wryly as if expecting nothing else.
“We are several days from our journey’s end and have depleted our supplies. Could I beg a few crusts and perhaps a keg of that wonderful Highmore water I’ve heard so much about?”
Lady Lillian smiled broadly. “Gladly will the elves of Greenwood provision your party. We get many cheeses all the time as gifts, that we do not eat. Galen,” she called aside, “immediately bring ten loaves of fresh bread, 2 of the biggest rounds of cheese, and milk and yogurt, anything left in the hall from the last two meals, a keg of wine and two kegs of water.”
Lady Lillian turned to face Honey again, “All this I give you, Honeysuckle, Companion to the Flaming Sword, if--”
Honeysuckle gulped then lifted her head a little higher as if to meet the challenge, and Lita, still unobserved in a tree near their clearing, knew that Honeysuckle had purposely given no gift so that she would be placed in this queenly woman’s debt. Ah, but who could make sense of these people?
“--you stay in Greenwood for a time when next you journey here.”
“Of course, Your Highness!” Honeysuckle cried with relief. “Gladly will I take respite with the noble and majestic elves of Greenwood.”
Quicker than Lita could imagine, the foodstuffs started arriving and appearing within Honeysuckle’s magic circle. The magic done, Honey began to rise and stretch but she and Lita both cried aloud as Stotra appeared in the circle attracted by its powerful magic. He glared around once then disappeared.
Lita could contain herself no longer and flung herself down the tree and ran into the firelight yelling, “Umaca coming! Leave now! Leave tonight! Run for safety!” in the Arut tongue.
“No!” Honey screamed as an ax blade whistled past Lita’s head.
Corry breathed fiercely, leaning on the ax handle, its head buried in the ground.
Lita looked at her round-eyed then turned to face Honey who walked quickly to her. She saw Arlin holding a long metal blade pointed at her, much more intimidating than the knives she’d shown Surya, with orange flames licking its two edges.
“Why have you come?” Honey asked and reached a tentative hand forward.
Lita took it and tried to convey in mental pictures what she knew of the Umacan planned attack; screaming half-naked savages running into the camp thrusting spears at the party. She thought a picture of the women astride their beasts fleeing into the bordering scrubland at great speed.
Honey sent out her farsight, around the camp then farther and farther out. Lita followed the magical query and saw for herself that the man-eaters were not near.
“Will you come with us?” Honey asked of her.
Lita withdrew her hand, unsure of her own desires. She tried to imagine leaving the canopy of trees that had sheltered her for all of her life and shivered in fear. Their every action was foreign and bizarre to her. She wore no clothes like they did, like all where they came from did, didn’t have the slightest idea how to wear clothes or why.
“I’ll show you,” Honey insisted. “We can teach you. You belong with us.”
Lita was amazed at the conviction in Honey’s tone. And amazed at the content as well. Who had ever said that to her and meant it? She did not belong with the Umaca though she was born to them. And she did not belong with the Arut, though they had raised her. Was it true? Did she really belong with this strange band of women? With shy quiet Surya, with angry passionate Arlin, with sturdy industrious Corry?
“Yes,” Honey assured her. “Yes, you do. Now come eat.” She laughed and led the way to the feast the elves had sent through her magic circle.
Lita started at the strange sound and baring of teeth, prepared to flee attack, but was instantly reassured by Honey’s lighthearted mind. She thought the party had eaten well before, but this night’s feast was like having a mountain of food to eat.
Stotra the shaman lead his tribe’s warriors on rafts down the Jwala throughout the pitch night. They covered miles very quickly though the river was a little low during the dry season. Near the edge of the forest, they quietly departed the rafts as false dawn lit the sky, tying them to trees with vines, then stole through the deep dark forest, Stotra leading them unerringly to almost the exact spot where the demon warriors had first defeated their chieftain scant weeks ago.
“Attack! Attack!” Corry cried at the first light of true dawn as the band of savages entered the clearing where her companions still slept.
Lita awoke to horror. There were ten and ten and ten of the Umacan warriors screaming with bloodlust brandishing spears tipped with blooded copper points. Their enlarged lips were colored bright red and their faces masked by reddish clay paint. Screaming hideous warcries and brandishing spears, they rushed the encampment.
After the beauteous display of friendship, trust, and peace with the elves last night in the magic circle, and the wondrous feast Lita had shared with the companions, she felt abhorrently ashamed to have been born of these murderous subhumans. In their ignorance and savagery they sought to destroy all that was bright and worthwhile in Lita’s new world.
She refused to let that happen.
Lita launched her body at a screaming warrior, also screaming the high-pitched Arut warcry. Answering cries echoed her from the forest as she tackled the big warrior and knocked him sprawling. The Arut had found her at last.
“Fight the Umaca!” she called in her own tongue before the warrior swung his spear at her. She leapt back with quickness born of finely trained instinct. Beyond him she caught a glimpse of Corry ducking a spear thrust and bringing her ax around into her opponent’s midsection felling him with a screech and a splash of red.
Vunta leaped down from a tree to stand beside Lita and growl ferociously at the man-eater warrior. He advanced his spear again and Lita grabbed his arm while Vunta kicked in his gut and rakes his claws across the Umacan’s chest. She dropped him then Vunta kicked at his head. Vunta roared in victory then grabbed Lita’s arm to take her from the conflict.
“No! Fight!” she shouted and twisted out of his grasp to leap at another warrior, one of three waving their spears at Arlin who was bathed in light flaming off her sword cutting and dancing at their spearthrusts.
Vunta obeyed, raking another Umacan with his claws.
Lita grabbed at the man-eater’s spear arm spoiling his aim, tangled her feet in his, and bit at his neck. The Umacan turned and smacked the heel of his free hand into her forehead. Lita saw stars but didn’t loosen her grip on his arm or her bite on his throat. Then he really hit her head. There was a loud crack and she sank bonelessly to the ground. Arlin continued fighting valiantly over her. The sword’s flames danced in arcs as she quickly defeated the man-eater’s best warriors.
A bloodcurdling scream cut through Lita’s soul. It was Vunta’s voice not a step from her and she could do nothing. Her body would not respond to her commands to get up and fight. Yet her mind floated freely giving her full sight of the bloody clearing. Perie Ann and Surya stood by the animals behind Honeysuckle who faced Stotra alone. Lita felt Honey throw out shaman magics to help Arlin and Corry, along with the Arut, to defeat the savages, but Stotra calmly stood and deflected their purpose. Finally, Honey struck at him directly and as she had expected, her spell bounced harmlessly off his shaman shield of protection and back to her with stunning force. Honey dropped to her knees, drawing in, absorbing the power backlash.
No! Lita thought, believing Honey to be weakened or damaged, but then she saw the secret in Honey’s mind. By absorbing the backlash, in the large clear crystal hanging on her chest, she could cast the same spell again but with ten times the force of the initial cast.
Stotra’s grin of triumph erupted into a gout of stinking flame. His head exploded and rained burning gobbets of brains onto his warriors who screamed and fled at the horrible death of their shaman.
Honey seemed to lurch after the shaman’s disintegrating frame but she was making her way toward the others of her party, to see to their hurts. She found Lita and threw herself onto her crying. Lita promptly pulled her vision down from its bird’s eye view of the clearing and tried to put an arm around Honey. Still her body refused her commands.
Honeysuckle sat up. “You live?” she whispered.
I live, Lita answered mind-to-mind. Her lips and tongue not able to even perform that function.
“But you are hurt sorely. Let me try to heal you.”
But Vunta!
“Vunta can wait, Lita. He merely sleeps. Let him rest now.” And Honeysuckle was in trance, calling on the energy of the earth to rise and heal the break in Lita’s neck.
Lita felt a rush of force rise from the ground beneath her and pass through the flesh of her body. She felt a terrible fire in her neck before she lost consciousness but somehow saw that it was the fire of healing.
When she woke, some time had passed. The Arut sat patiently to one side of her, Vunta plucking at the bald patch surrounding the pink streak of newly-healed flesh angling across his torso. Lita felt waves of contentment glowing from them at the meal the strange humans had provided. She looked to the other side, her neck moving perfectly well and saw the beasts were all loaded.
Honeysuckle noticed her movement and walked swiftly to kneel at her side. “How do you feel?”
Lita nodded.
“Can you stand? Sit first and rest a moment. I’ll bring water.” She helped Lita sit then went to retrieve a water skin. One by one the furry Arut shuffled close and touched Lita sniffing her health.
Honey waited until Lita had drunk her fill then assisted her in rising. Lita held onto Honeysuckle for a moment then with a deep breath, stood on her own.
The Arut made soft sounds of pleasure. “Good Lita,” they whispered amongst themselves. “Lita safe now.”
Surya had been standing aside with a cloth in her hand. She stepped forward and presented it to Lita, looking to Honeysuckle as she spoke. “This is a skirt for you. I will show you how to wear it.”
Lita cocked her head and smiled. She patiently lifted each foot and watched as Surya tied it at her waist. It fell halfway down her thighs and was perfectly useless. What idiot would wear clothes in this climate anyway? But this was one of the many mysteries she was so anxious to unravel. She smiled and said, “Thank you, Surya,” in her own tongue.
Surya smiled and nodded.
Their patience gone, the Arut started saying, “Back to nest now.”
“Lita come back to nest,” Vunta insisted.
She turned to look at him through a curtain of pain and loss. The nest of the Arut was all the safety and warmth, love and nurturing, she’d ever known. Her heart would always return there in silent moments of wistfulness. But her mind was already gone ahead with these strange humans, wandering the land far and wide, seeing, and learning, and knowing things so impossibly out of reach of these simple tree-dwellers.
“I go now,” she said and pointed west.
“Na, na,” they cried and rushed forward to touch and poke her in the symbolic way that meant great disapproval.
She permitted it for a moment then gently pushed their hands away and said again, “I go now,” while pointing west.
“Na. Come back home to nest,” they protested, but Lita had already turned away, tears stinging her eyes, to join Honeysuckle.
Perie Ann held a horse for her to mount as the others mounted theirs. Lita shook her head vigorously with wide eyes. Honeysuckle laughed in delight, the Arut ducking nervously at the sound. With a sigh, Perie Ann tied the horse to her train of asses and followed Arlin’s lead with the rest of the party.
Lita looked at her family once again. They were frowning, some in disappointment, some with incomprehension. They’d been fighting the Umaca to free her to return to the nest. To bring her home where she belonged.
Lita began walking out from under the cover of the trees slowly, looking back again and again, but as the horses pulled further away from her, she concentrated on her footing forward across the rocky terrain and never looked back again.


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