This painting by me is inspired by the beautiful short story of my friend Suz Anne Wipperling wrote for me. -Patrick Rieser
She was dying. Her mam said it was okay, that the Goddess Amat was going to make it peaceful, but for now, the pain was very bad. Lil was five already. Her mam told her she was so grown up. She didn’t feel grown up most of the time, but when the pain made her grit her teeth, and curl her toes, and think about dying so the pain would go away, then she felt very grown up.
It was the Brizha serpent that bit her. It was so pretty, dressed in the blooms of the Milwood tree. It almost looked like a bloom. Its head was petal shaped, and a light pink in color. It wasn’t until the forked tongue licked out that Lil knew it wasn’t a flower, but by then it was too late, the teeth had sunk into her side. Then the long white body slid down the tree, and the serpent wrapped around her body, embracing her with warmth. She slept within the hug. Later, her brother, Maki, found her, and killed the Brizha. Her mam wept, and her pader raged. She felt so peaceful until the pain started. First her arms became rigid. Then her mouth. Later, those both relaxed, but her left leg became a broken twig, with no strength, but lots of pain.
Lil spent her time in bed. She longed for the grove behind the house. The mistia fruit was ripening, and would soon be harvested. It was the best flavor in the world. Her mam would make mistia fruit dessert, and ferment more for the mistia malt ale. It was the cakes that Lil craved. Her mam made the sweetest ones, and she always requested one for her birth date. She was unsure if she would make it to her birth date this year. She could hear her little sister, Min, scampering through the house. Min was always singing. Of course, Lil had taught her most of the songs, but Min also liked to make new ones up. Today she was singing about the mistia fruit cakes that her mother was preparing. Barimid, Lil’s mam, walked into the bedroom. She sat down beside Lil, and held her hand. “How bad is your pain, today?” She asked.
“Today, I am floating on the edges of the world.” Lil responded. Each day she tried to explain her pain by how far away from the world it took her. It was not a good day. “Today the Daughter will come.” Barimid said. “She will see if you need the ritual. If she says you do, we will have a ceremony, and you will find the peace of death.” A sob escaped her lips, which she quickly smothered. She smiled at her child, looking so small in her bed.
“It frightens me, Mam. I don’t think a dream can take away the pain.” She sighed as a new pain traveled down her torso, making her ribs throb.
“It will be better, you will see.” Her mam promised. “The ritual will bring happiness. I will be happy to see your smile.” Mam turned her face away. When her mam left to finish the baking, Lil thought about the visit. She had only heard about the Merifenha Flower Ritual, that only the faithful to Amat could be given the ritual flower song for their death. Her family had long been servants, offering regular sacrifices to the Goddess and the minor gods.
Lil’s aunt, Prulia, had been chosen as a Daughter many years before. A Resist soldier had killed her during a ceremony before Lil was born. She didn’t understand much about what had happened. Her pader wouldn’t talk about his sister.
Hours later Lil woke to the smell of baked cakes. Other smells intertwined, and Lil could pick out barlia bread, scramim candy, and mermit roast. The pain in her head was deep, and her neck tingled unpleasantly. The smells did not make her hungry.
She could hear her mam talking to someone outside of her room. “You must save her! She is too young for the ritual. This isn’t right. There must be something you can do to heal her.” A soft voice replied, and although Lil strained to hear the reply, it was unintelligible. The door opened and her mam and a woman in red came to her side. “Leave us.” The woman said to her mam. Mam glared at the woman, and her mouth pressed into a tight line, but she turned and left, closing the door behind her. “I am known as Plamha. I am a Daughter for Amat. I would like to look at your wound, if that is alright with you?”
With Lil’s nod, Plamha lifted her nightgown, exposing the snake bite on her stomach. It was red, and swollen, with pus oozing from the bite areas. Red streaks ran from the wound outwards, like sun rays in a picture Min would have drawn. Plamha placed a hand on the wound, ignoring Lil’s gasp, and closed her eyes. She seemed to be praying. Lil lay as still as possible. After the initial shock of pain, the Daughter’s hand felt cool. Her skin went numb. Lil slid out of consciousness for a bit. When Plamha removed her hand, Lil opened her eyes. Plamha smiled down at her. “The poison is deep, and I cannot stop its progression. All I can do now is offer you the relief of the ritual. Do you understand what the ritual is?”
“Yes. I will die.” Lil said bravely. Something about this woman made her feel brave. “You will give me a dream.”
Plamha nodded. “Do you have questions?”
“What is after? Will I just stop being me?”
“After is a mystery. We have the Goddess, who has told us the spirit never dies. We have the natural world, which is a process of life and death. We see people have peace, when the pain of life has left. I cannot answer what I have not experienced myself, but these are things I believe.”
Lil liked the idea of the pain of life being over. Now that Plamha had stopped, the pain was throbbing in her shoulders and hips.
“What will the dream be like?” Lil asked.
“Tell me what you think would be a good dream for you.” Plamha suggested.
“I miss the grove behind the house. I miss the smell of ripe fruit, and the taste of the birth day cakes. It is where I have played with Min, and chased Maki. I should have played in the grove instead of going to the Milwood forest. The grove is a good place.”
“Your dream will be ready for you. Your mam and pader will call your family to come. Tomorrow we will have the ceremony. Do you think you can stand the pain until then?”
Lil nodded, looking into the kind eyes above her. Knowing there was an end to the pain was a comfort. She could hang on.
The next day Maki came to help her. Lil could hear neighbors and family arriving. She heard her grandmam asking about the recipes for the banquet, making sure her mam had prepared them correctly. Her grandpad sounded upset about the harvest that was being neglected. Maki helped Lil stand up. He had brought a special blanket for her to wrap around herself. It contained the night, and the day, the wind and the rain. He supported her walk to the Lay room, where her family waited. Nuns had arrived early. They had rearranged the Lay room for the ceremony. The Lay couch was in the middle of the room, and surrounded by Merifenha flowers. Chairs were moved into a circle around the couch. Min was singing a song in the kich, helping her mam set out the food.
At the door stood the Daughter, with a mask over her face and a nun behind her. The mask was intricate, with gems and natural materials woven into symbols. Lil could still see her beautiful blue eyes. The nun bowed in the doorway, honoring Amat, and offering solace to those in attendance.
Plamha came straight to Lil, ignoring all others in the room. She sat down beside the child, and touched her brow, her shoulder, and her stomach.
The Daughter offered a small glass of clear liquid. Lil sipped it. It seemed to be only water, but the pain receded to a dull ache.
She pulled out her flute and began softly, letting the music drift with the words the family spoke to each other. Lil stared hard at the Daughter. She wanted to remember every detail of the beautiful mask, the vivid blue eyes that peered out, and the soft red gown. Her family began chanting softly: “Go with Amat’s blessings. Death embrace you with happy dreams. Dream Amat’s dream, and go with peace.” Lil began to feel sleepy. The music was so gentle, and easy to float within. The flowers surrounding her perfumed a space that enclosed her. Lil shut her eyes for a moment and found herself and Plamha in the mistia grove behind the house.
The grove was ready to harvest. The ripe fruit swung down on vines, easily reachable by children’s eager hands. Lil felt the weight of one that hung before her. It was warm from the sun, firm and succulent. Lil brought it to her mouth and bit down. Juice ran down her chin, and the pulpy fruit slid down her throat. The Daughter continued playing her flute. The sun was setting behind the grove, and the purple and blues along the sky lit the fruit around her. The sun was an orange ball, impossibly close, pleasantly warm. Lil felt like the fruit, swinging weightlessly. Something lifted her with an air current, and she drifted over the grove trees towards the sun. She could see the village around her home. It was not large, but it was the best village in Cahill. Lil looked down and saw her body was still there, in the grove. It didn’t feel strange to be above it, but it did feel like freedom. The body below held the pain and sadness, and she, free and floating, had no more connection to those things.
A smile lit her face. Far away she heard her mam gasp, and then sob. But Lil was happy.
The smell of the Merifenha flower lifted her higher, and the sound of the flute led her home...
Written by Suz Anne Wipperling, based on a world created by Patrick Rieser.
Nami understood the reasons. It was the circle, and it was the ritual. So why was she upset today, of all days? It was her one year from name day. It had been 425 days, one full calendar circle, from the day she had been chosen.
She woke with gladness, like she had every day since her naming as daughter apprentice. But the feeling had slowly ebbed away as the day progressed towards the ceremony that would make her a full-fledged Daughter. An unexpected anxiety was gripping her. It started with a visit from Agriha, just after breaking fast. Agriha had been named the same day as she had. Although they had not known each other before that, they felt like sisters now. But today Agriha wanted to go visit her family one last time before the ceremony. It was forbidden. Agriha did not want to be dissuaded, she just wanted to say goodbye in case she wasn’t allowed to return.
Without Agriha to spend the day with, Nami prepared for the ceremony alone. The skull raven watched from the mantel, its red eye rarely blinking.
Nami knelt before the altars. She offered bread to Amat, Goddess of Life and Death. She drank the blood of the soldier, and ate a petal of the Merifenha flower. A year ago, these both made her feel ill. Now her body was acclimating to the power of the gods surging through her body, and her disorientation was small. After the ceremony tonight, she would no longer need the aids to reach Meridre, the state a Daughter was in when she assisted the dying to die.
She then turned to the second altar. She broke the poisonous Manea leaf into small bits and let them float on the bowl of water placed before Beto’s image. His large owl eyes looked out of the human-like face. As God of Wind and Animals, his participation in tonight’s ceremony was important. Nami wanted him to be patient with her. She had a special fear of Spindlers, and knew they would be present.
Next, she faced the altar for Niim, the God of Water and Health. Niim had been the reason she became a daughter. The huge fish features of the god were comforting. Nami came from a family of fisher folk, and Niim had always protected them on the highly volatile seas. Nami placed sweet Pertaki flowers in his water bowl, as her family had done for hundreds of years. She remembered the day Niim had come and placed the wreath of Pertaki on her head, naming her daughter apprentice to Amat.
Last of all, she knelt before Kaoh’s altar. The God of Plants and Harvest was the one that needed to be placated the most. A tree grew on the altar, with an angry face looking down at her. Kaoh chose what humans could eat and survive on. One year he could suddenly turn a plant poisonous that had always been edible. Nami scattered seeds from the last Bragint harvest into his water bowl. They were hard to find, and humans would feel it a waste to use them in sacrifice. But today was special, and Nami had saved them for this very reason.
With the ritual sacrifices complete, Nami rose and dressed for the day. She wore a special gown for the ceremony. It was spun and sewn from the wool of the wild sherper herds. Nami had dyed it red, to match the raven’s eye. She and Agriha had prepared their gowns together. She wondered where Agriha was now.
Her own longing for her mother’s wisdom was difficult to set aside. Grief engulfed her for a moment as she thought of her family. After today they would no longer matter to her. During the ceremony, she would become “other”. She would become Daughter to Amat, and even possibly, a rare Inner Circle Servant. Amat, Goddess who had destroyed Alachanhea, and saved humans in the process, only allowed 6 servants into this deeply devoted sect. Nami could not imagine being so honored. As the day waned into twilight, Nami began to fear for Agriha’s return. She should have returned by now. If she didn’t come it would mean her death. No one became a daughter apprentice without knowing the price.
The other thing that had upset Nami’s peace this day was the presence of the skull raven. It had appeared in the twilight of the previous day, gliding in her window and landing on the mantel’s branch. All mantels had a branch for this reason, but this was the first time Nami had seen a raven use one. Its red eye watched her silently. It would become her companion after tonight, but today, it’s symbolism was a stark reality of the unknown.
As the moon’s red eye rose over the palace, Nami reached for the mask. It had taken her the full year to prepare it. Each Daughter’s mask was unique. Nami’s was made from light copper mined deep under the planet’s surface, shaped into the symbol of Parthee, the fisherman’s talisman. She welded them into a circlet crown. Adding trigrams to the circle added strength, each pointed to the gods surrounding her. Over her face, the mask would allow her eyes to see the world through the eyes of Amat. On the headband, she added Zicolt gems, a pink talisman of the faithful. Merifenha flower leaves-in various stages of their lives- sprouted from the top. As the talisman of the Daughters, the leaves were more than symbolic, they named her to the sect. Nami had not worn the mask yet. It was forbidden until after the ceremony.
It was time to go, and there was no sign of Agriha. Resigned, Nami carried the mask reverentially. The raven flew to her shoulder as she opened the door. Startled, she almost dropped the mask. The bird moved down to her arm, settling in with a strong grip of its talons. She arrived with five other daughter apprentices. Agriha was not there. It was a bad sign, six instead of seven. The other daughter apprentices looked around for the seventh, disgust and fear at Agriha’s betrayal bright in their eyes. This would not be the first time the circle would be short, but they had all thought they were going to be blessed. The minor gods sat on the East side of the great room. Beto sat in a throne, with spindlers crawling around him, their 8 armored legs and bone bodies clacking as they roamed. The throne was created from the skull of the Gragon, a huge flying beast that had died out during the God War that killed Nature God Alachanhea. When Amat killed the Nature God, she broke her into the 3 minor Gods, Beto, Niim, and Kaoh. Niim was most comfortable in water robes, floating in air as if floating in water. His tiny Scraab fish darted around him. Kaoh stood in his favorite form, as a Breek Tree. The roots slid off the steps, down into the crowd of priests and nuns assembled for the ceremony.
Nature had despised humans. She created a world hostile to human life, poisoning them through their food, and hunting them with carnivores. Amat, then Queen of the Church of Harbinger, called upon Alachanhea to stop killing humans, and teach them to respect her nature instead. The humans were so destructive, and Alachanhea refused, doubling her effort to decimate the population. She had almost succeeded.
The ceremonial tattooing began. Each apprentice offered their skin to the priest, losing their self-skin in service to Amat. As the process completed, a disturbance began at the back of the room. Agriha had arrived, prepared for the ceremony. Her gown was especially beautiful, a result of the family history of textile merchants and seamstresses that she grew up in. Her raven was perched on her arm, but its talons had dug in deep, and blood dripped down her arm. She carried her mask of ebony and earth. As Agriha approached the circle, the priests and nuns were reluctant to allow her through. They hissed at her as they stepped back. Agriha did not look at them. Her eyes were fixed on the Goddess at the apex. Amat gazed back, no expression giving her thoughts away.
Agriha stopped short of the daughter apprentice circle. The circle had not opened to allow her in. She could not force it to. All looked to Amat. Silence held the room. Candles wavered, eyes watched in bright interest, and somewhere, a beat began. A priest or nun had begun drumming their thigh in a steady rhythm. The others took up the beat, and soon, a dull thud reverberated into the high ceiling.
Amat finally held up her hand and the drumming stopped.
“Child, you are wayward. Why do you come to my presence with the world’s eye upon your arm? This skull raven is ill, and its eye is closed. The world does not see you. You are no longer chosen.”
The priests and nuns grabbed Agriha’s arms. She looked up at Amat with horror. A wail escaped her. She looked wildly around, and as she spied Nami, she jumped towards her, breaking the faithful’s hold. She grasped Nami’s arm, causing Nami’s raven to peck her hand. Crying out, she fell backwards into the priests, who dragged her out of the room, her skull raven flapping madly above her head. Her mask lay broken on the floor at Nami’s feet.
Nami turned away. It was time. Tattooed and blessed, she partook of the soldier’s blood and the Merifenha flower petal one last time. A nun stepped forward and placed her mask over her head. A Deirne Flute, which created a Daughter’s death-dream music, was hung from her shoulder.
Through the eyes of the mask, everything changed. She saw the flame of life within each human present. She watched her sister-Daughters light up in a soul bright fire. They were new, and ancient. Amat blessed each with a hand upon their shoulders. She named each as she passed. “Neri.” She named Nami. “Come, you will be in my inner circle.”
Humbly, Neri left the sister-Daughters behind. They would go out and assist the dying on this very night. Neri would assist the Goddess.
On the way from the room, she saw the moon above. It looked like an eye, closed with clouds. For a second, the clouds cleared, and she saw the raven of the world looking down. Then the clouds reformed. Somewhere, far away, a scream went on endlessly. It sounded like Agriha. Her Ritual of Giving had begun.
Written by Suz Anne Wipperling, based on a world created by Patrick Rieser.
Murph the Thief
The ranger was too close, his head swinging back and forth as he studied the ground for clues. I had a funny feeling he was looking for me. I had hidden my prints, but there are always telltale signs left. Broken twigs, crushed grass, and quiet birds are all things a good tracker will notice. I decided my hiding place behind the rock wasn’t safe. I slipped backwards, careful not to dislodge small pebbles. I took the pelts strung on twine and dragged it behind me as I hit the sand. Bushy groyle tails smoothed the prints. When I found the dirt path, I sprinted. I knew I was leaving glaring clues, but I wanted distance from the ranger and his eyes as sharp as skull ravens. Rangers were too well trained. Once I hit Hembrok the tracking would end.
This wildland was the most dangerous territory. Cuwick Island only had two towns, both small and full of survivors. Murderers and thieves lived next to hunters, trappers, and scavengers. The town of Dumport was larger, and had the only temple to the gods on the island. Hembrok, the smaller town, was on its own small island off the coastline of Cuwick, often referred to as Small Cuwick. Hembrok had few families, and many people with dead eyes and leathers laden with hidden weapons. I kept a house on Small Cuwick, on the edge of Hembrok. I had a well-hidden dugout below the foundation. The previous owner had created a pivoting wall in the back of a closet. The stairway behind the wall led down to a room larger than the house above it. I had quite a store collected. If things became too heated from the rangers, I could block the stairway and survive for over a year.
Another exit came up in the rocks that overlooked the house. The narrow tunnel was also hidden in the dugout. If I needed to escape that way, it would not be easy. Being thin and short helped me squeeze through the tight spots. Not everyone would. If I didn’t become fat or my head became larger, that is.
Being a woman was a disadvantage in some ways, but a great advantage in others. Most took me as male. I had a husky voice, and I dressed in wildland pants and shirts, a specific style of clothing for those who risked their lives out in the wildlands. The thick leather helped save us from poisonous snakes, bugs, and mammals. Groyles’ sharp teeth had a hard time piercing the leather. Groyles were the main thing I trapped. It diverted people who thought I was only a trapper. Being known as Murph the Trapper was safer than Murph the Thief.
I was good. Once I stole a jewel from the mayor in town, and then stood in the crowd of gawkers as the city watch did an investigation, the jewel safe against my stomach. That jewel bankrolled some very useful tools. I made a voyage to Darley in Westbury. I knew a few thieves there who had created a new way to pick locks, and a small listening device that fit in an ear, and amplified voices. It had already come in handy to hear of plans in several Westbury towns. Nothing like a little information to assist a good thief. On that same trip, I had traveled to Readwick. On the wagon tram, I had heard two wagons back a family speak of their trip to visit an aunt who needed help cleaning out a rich uncle’s home. I could help with that too.
I located the home as soon as I arrived. The well-to-do merchant lived alone on the rich end of town. I had everything I wanted from the place before the family had even greeted their aunt a few blocks over. My motto was to steal small light items, easily hidden. My pants, of my own design, were full of pockets. The outer layer of leather kept the bulky items from showing. A find of a rare gold pocket watch paid for the entire trip. I traveled to Talem after. I caught the ferry to Cuwick after lifting a few more items. At home, I practiced with the new picks. As any good thief would, I had almost every type of padlock and door locks available. Soon I could open any within seconds with the new tools.
Out in the wildlands I avoided the rangers. If they ever suspected that groyle trapping wasn’t my main source of income they would begin watching me.
This day, I took the groyle pelts to the trading company as soon as I arrived in Hembrok. Perha was a sharp negotiator. We bartered for some flour and ale, and I managed to get him to throw in some jerky. Carrying my sack of flour, crate of ale, and sack of jerky, was not easy. I threw the flour over one shoulder, used both hands to carry the crate, and left the bag of jerky on top.
Half way home the flour tumbled off my shoulder. I stopped to readjust everything. When I looked up, the ranger I had seen out in the wildland was a few feet away, watching me. New to Cuwick, I didn’t know much about him.
“Ranger.” I nodded at him.
“Citizen.” He nodded back. “Need a hand?”
“Thanks, only a bit to go. Builds up the muscles.” I said, putting the flour sack on top of the crate and the jerky on top of that, and hoisted it all up to my belly.
My shoulders screamed at the weight. I tried not to let any strain show in my face.
“Well, I’m heading that way, anyway. Might as well help.” He lifted the flour up like it was a butterfluff.
With no good reason to argue, I followed him to my place. It wasn’t much to look at on the outside. I let the wood go gray, and didn’t fix the board that had come loose under the roof, so that it hung useless. It was obvious that no one wealthy lived here. When we reached my gate, the ranger stopped and waited for me to open it. I set my crate down and grabbed the flour from him. He wanted to hold on to it, but yielded after a slight tug.
“Well, thanks for the help. Visiting in the neighborhood?” I asked casually, showing no sign of opening my gate.
“Yep.” The ranger said, half turning away. “You.” He said, turning back and looking me in the eye. Oh, blessed Meta. This could be bad.
“Oh, well, I’ve limited supplies, so I won’t invite you in for tea.” I said, keeping my voice light.
“I’m not leaving until I’ve been inside.” The ranger said. “Missing items in town are prompting searches everywhere. I’m sure you understand.” Ranger boy said, looking at the gate expectantly. With a sigh, I untied the thong holding my gate closed. I had a hidden latch just under the leather. Without pressing it, the gate would seem stuck. I pressed it, keeping my body between the gate and the ranger. The gate swung open, revealing my tidy, but small yard. Tools of my trapping trade were lined up along the back fence, with pelts stretched and ready for tanning. The door to my small cottage was much thicker than it appeared. But it swung on well-oiled hinges, making it seem much lighter. I stood back and let the ranger take in the small space. He stepped into the main room, eyes taking in every small detail at a glance. Every indication was that I lived a very simple life. I had a table and chair that I had built myself out of found wood. My old wood stove had a small pile of wood stacked a foot away. The pot on top heated water for tea. A shelf on the far side of the stove held my food stores. My fireplace held a kettle on a sI placed the flour and ale on a shelf, and opened the jerky, pulling out a small piece to chew. It kept my hands and mouth busy. There was no lay room for visiting or rocking. No lay couch. The only thing on the walls was a shelf that held a few tools.
I opened the tin of tea, and showed the ranger the small amount left at the bottom. “I hope you don’t mind that I don’t offer tea. This has to last me.”
In most of Pentara, such a statement would have been considered rude, and caused suspicion. In Cuwick the niceties in life had long been left behind. The ranger would not think anything of a poor trapper holding onto their small amount of tea.
“Not thirsty.” he replied, ending the small need of offering. “What is in that room?” he asked, indicating the open doorway that led to my bedroom.
“Bed.” I said simply, indicating with my hand that he was welcome to look. I stayed where I was near the stove while he went in to look. The few clothes I had in the closet and the chair beside the bed made his search simple. I heard him lift the mattress and look underneath. He probably felt along it to feel for anything bulky. I had two rugs, one in each room, both made from clothing I had worn out. He lifted each, perhaps looking for a hidden basement.
With nothing else to look at, he looked at me. Suddenly, he leapt at me, grabbing me by the arms and slamming me back against the door. Everything shuddered.
I grunted, then just as quickly swept my left leg out and hooked his ankle, yanking him off his feet. He made a grab for my arm as he fell backwards, his hand slipping away without gaining a grip. He fell hard, the house shuddering again. I was on top of him with my knife at his throat a split second later.
His laughter rumbled out of his chest, and caught me by surprise. I was expecting surprise, hurt, anger.
“Murph, you haven’t changed.” He said.
He knew my name, but he could have learned that in town. Had we met before? I looked closer at his face. He did resemble my unc back in Mistwick where I had grown up. I jumped up and backed away, wary. What was he pulling now?
“Murph, it’s me, Baston.” He said, naming my brother that I hadn’t seen in ten years. Baston would be in his 3rd decade. Last I had seen him he was bragging that he would be using a razor soon. Could this muscled stranger be him?
“Pader sent me to find you. I joined the rangers for the experience, but I don’t plan to stay one for long. I wanted to hook up with you. I think we could do some good thieving together.” He looked around my small home, his contempt at my thieving acumen plain on his face. I wasn’t about to give anything away until I was sure. A ranger may have heard about me back in Mistwick and think he could make his reputation by finding me. A family resemblance did not make him my brother.
“How is Mam?” I asked, brushing my clothing off.
“Dead, same as she was when you left.” He said, laughter again rumbling out of his chest. It did strike a memory of Baston, his skinny teen chest shuddering with laughter.
“Do you have another chair? We could sit down and I can fill you in on life in Mistwick.” I retrieved the chair that was in the bedroom and we sat at my wobbly table. I still offered no tea.
“Do you remember Clarha? I was pretty sweet on her when you were home.” I nodded. “She died.” Baston looked down at his rough ranger hands. “She fell in a patch of dreaddogs. The poison took her almost instantly.”
“I’m sorry.” I said politely. He chose a good piece of news to share. Few knew of his infatuation with Clarha.
“I looked around Mistwick, and there just wasn’t any other girl I thought about marrying. The Goddess whispered in my ear that I should be a ranger. Pader was awful upset about it. He said he’d trained me in all the skills of the family, and I was going to use it for evil. I told him he and all of our clan would ever be safe from me. He said every thief was part of my clan. He threw me out.” His story rang true to my ears. I could just hear Pader’s voice, telling his only son to leave.
“Where did you go?” I asked, hoping to assemble more information.
“I found the closest ranger station in Duneby and joined up. The Goddess blesses every ranger, did you know that? I had no idea there was so much that a ranger needed to know. I had to learn all poisons, venoms, and dangerous animals. Damn, did you know there is an ant that can eat your brain? Oh, and a groyle that is poisonous? Not around here, at least.”
“After the ranger school, they sent me to Pentara for several years. I worked with the nuns and priests in cataloguing the wildlife, and what their dangers were. Had some close calls with that job.” He displayed a few scars along his arms, pointing out the frex bite, the skull bat scratch that had become infected, and the lumpy flesh left from a brush with a toxic grediha plant. The nuns had barely saved his life on that one.
“I’m just a trapper these days.” I said, spreading my hands to indicate the simple life I lived.
He nodded, then smiled wickedly. “But I bet I can find a few of your secrets. Dad trained us both, after all.” He stood and went to the shelf, feeling along the underside of the bottom shelf, pulling away a package I had taped under there, out of sight. “Extra cash?” He asked.
I nodded, and watched as he returned it.
Next, he probed around the stove pipe, unhooking the elbow where it rose to the roof. Inside he dumped out some of my treasures. A jeweled pocketknife and silver pocket watch among them.
“From before I retired and became a trapper.” I said. He returned the items and the elbow.
He began studying the walls around him, focusing on a burl in one board. He pressed on it, and it popped out into his hand, exposing a cavity behind the wall. Reaching inside he pulled out a sack of coins. He didn’t bother opening it to see the color of them, hefting the clinking bag back into the hole, he turned to me.
"What else can I tell you to make you believe me?”
“Tell me about Pader.”
“The old bear!” Baston said heatedly. “He whipped me.” I was surprised. I’d never know Pader to be a violent parent, not even when he caught me with the neighbor boy in the Milwood bushes when I was fourteen.
“But, I must admit, I pushed him to it. I kept telling him how bad thieving was. I was kind of righteous and insufferable. I thought I knew everything back then. He sighed.
“Unc Dem and Ata Marin took me in until I could prepare to go to Duneby. Ata Marin told me I broke Pader’s heart even more than you did.”
He looked sideways at me.
Well, it was true. I had broken Pader’s heart. Ata Marin had told me often enough in the time I spent with them, birthing a baby I would never see again. I longed to ask for news of the baby, but I didn’t even know if Baston had known why I wasn’t at home.
“The baby is almost grown up now. I keep an eye on him when I am in the territory.” Baston said, looking off into the distance. “His mam and pader had their own child later, a girl. They seem happy enough.”
He looked at me and laughed. “No one would think you were that same girl who shamed the Goddess back then. You look like a boy. I had to watch you for a bit before I even believed you were a girl, much less the Murph I knew.”
I smiled weakly. Good to know my disguise had worked.
“Anyways, as the will-a-whispers say, look twice and believe nothing.” He smiled at me. I could see Baston in the twinkle of his eyes now. I had no more doubts about who he was. The question was, did I trust him? He was a blessed ranger, and a blessed ranger was said to never be diverted from the Goddess way.
“Why do you want to turn from the Goddess?” I asked, watching his face for lies.
“I don’t think I ever forgave the Goddess from when Clarha died. Something in my heart broke back then. After these years of being a ranger, I still haven’t recovered. I don’t feel blessed, and I don’t feel like going through another ceremony with the lie in my heart.” He looked directly at me as he spoke. I believed him.
The next important thing was, did I want to cut my little brother in? I had made quite a treasure trove. Was I willing to share it? I decided I could put that off for a bit. No need to show him everything.
“How are you going to leave the rangers and not be hunted down?”
“I already have.” He said. “I walked away in Darley. They are looking for me south. I left clues that way. They might even think a Repilan caught me and dragged me to its den. They will find some of my things, and a skeleton in the Repilan’s den.”
“Pader will know,” I said. Baston nodded. “and you look like a ranger.”
“I left a pack outside of town. I’m ready to become a trapper. Maybe I can teach you how to be a successful one.” He grinned at me.
I sighed, and put the kettle on, pulling out another jar full of tea leaves. I began a list in my head of what we would need. Another bed, a shelf for his things, a room so I didn’t have to share mine.
Suddenly, my heart felt light. It had been so long since I had someone to care about besides myself. Good or bad, family had found me. Blood cradles blood, Mam’s words slipped through my brain.
Laughing, I slugged Baston in his muscled arm. “Well, then we had better get to work.”
Written by Suz Anne Wipperling, based on a world created by Patrick Rieser.