The Strange Tree
She ambled easily through the foothills adjoining the wide plain. The cone-bearing evergreens of the high slopes had gradually given way to leafy trees and thick underbrush, which all burned just as readily in her presence. Soon the hills faded into rolling fields and the trees thinned. The forest edge receded away to her left. Within the forest, thick trees towered like living mountains themselves, nurtured by the wide rivers that fed that region. Her course took her to the right, away from the dense woodlands and across a small creek that wound down though the hills and off into the sweeping grasslands. Its frigid, cheerfully bubbling waters had been mountain snowpack weeks before. Cold as the water was, the heat of her crossing still sent it up in roaring towers of vapor that condensed quickly in the cool air of morning. A rolling bank of thick fog preceded her over the nighted prairie. The moisture that condensed upon the cool grasses saved much of the field from her presence; such that only the nearby plants succumbed to her passage. The burst of dawn across the grassland found her surrounded by the thick, acrid smoke of burning grass. She reclined amid the char, once again drawing in the sunlight.
Night descended quickly on this side of the mountains. When the bright sphere slipped behind the peaks, she set off again. Lingering moisture from her previous morning’s passage settled in the cooling air. A thin mist drifted between the tops of the unburnt grass and flowering plants. The tendrils of moisture followed air currents drawn by her heat, sweeping in a loose spiral that converged over her and soared into the air to become wispy clouds that broke aloft and spread in a counterspiral. The singing and trilling of prairie birds gave way to the buzzing of insects and chittering of bats. Amphibians and small mammals crawled from subterranean burrows to add their whistles, squeaks and croaks to the dark chorus. The hawks and vultures of daytime settled in their roosts, leaving room in the cool, humid air for owls. The sunlit face of the waning moon made a thin slice in the fabric of the sky, as if some great claw had torn through and exposed the brilliance behind. She halted her progress and looked around in bewilderment.
Where there had been a rippling sea of tall grass, there was now bare earth. Something had cut a wide area of grassland down to just above the roots, then broke and churned the soil. The thick scent of cut grass and disturbed soil still hung over the field—it was a recent phenomenon. Lopped-off stems protruded from the ground and crumbled to ash as they burned around her. The edge of the strange area formed a wide arc to either side, a rough circle that closed again far ahead. In the center of the circle stood a strange tree. No, not a living tree, she noted. The branches and leaves were gone, as was the bark. There were no roots beneath it and no living sap flowed through the bole; it was just…there. She gazed at it, more puzzled than ever. Strange patterns covered the otherwise bare wood.
There were several small creatures around the unusual tree. The glow of their bodies in the cool night air told that they were warm-blooded and the fur on them marked them as mammals; though, their pelts seemed oddly cold. She quickly realized that they were draped in the skins of other creatures. Their own fur was unique in its near absence, explaining the borrowed pelts. Sparse hair grew on their arms and legs; long hair grew from some of their heads. This they had worked into odd arrangements, wrapping and coiling the locks together in patterns. Some of them had fur on their faces, to varying degrees of thickness and length. They were clumsy creatures, standing on two legs with no tail for stability. Despite their seemingly disadvantageous adaptations, they were almost indistinguishable from other vertebrates. They possessed four limbs, single pairs of eyes and ears on the head, and little in the way of protection from the harsher aspects of nature. Though their bodies seemed ill-adapted, their brains showed remarkable development. Their broad skulls were dominated by the organ.
Many carried long pieces of wood with almost purely metallic tips. Others had different devices, all along the same wood-and-metal theme. Nearly all of the creatures had foreign materials intruding through the thinnest parts of their bodies—ears, noses, lips—and intricate patterns of pigment in their skin. Strangely, this pigment did not seem like natural coloration. Some individuals were fatter or thinner than others and there appeared to be a loose dimorphism between the sexes; they bore clear differences in their upper and lower bodies which, again, did not deviate drastically from their mammalian forebears. A handful of the creatures were gesturing and making sounds at one particularly large specimen, whose extra skins were more complex and covered more of its body. The sounds seemed to be a manner of communication. While she couldn’t immediately understand their vocalizations, their minds leaked thought as readily as her body leaked heat: terror, anger, confusion.
Ah! she thought, they must be reacting to me.
That was at least one thing about them which made sense. As long as there had been life other than her on this world, the other creatures had always fled at her passage, clearly alarmed by her size and her heat. But why were these queer things standing in the middle of such a wide open space? If they feared her, why not run and hide? She decided to peek into their minds and learn more of this odd new animal. Her focus fell on the biggest one, who was thrusting one of its forelimbs aggressively at the tree and gibbering loudly.
What is this?
Her attempt to probe their minds was set aside when the lead animal’s gestures drew her attention back to the tree. She could see now that the bole had been laboriously stripped, traced with odd patterns, and placed in the ground in this spot; but, that was not what piqued her interest. One of the creatures stood against the tree, apart from the others. This one wore no extra skins; in place of skin coverings, its own hide had been decorated with markings akin to those on the tree, using the same or similar substances. The skin beneath the markings was bumpy, like that of a bird that had molted most of its feathers. Its head was smooth and devoid of hair. As with the others, pigment had been imbedded inside its skin; though, it lacked intricacy, and was isolated to a single group of markings on the area above its eyes. Twisted lengths of woven grass were coiled around its extremities and around the naked tree as well. It appeared to have been confined to the tree. She cocked her head and snorted, startling the group of creatures.
Queer, confusing little things.
The largest one resumed its loud, rhythmical barking in her direction. The limbs at its sides waved and gestured wildly; now toward the bound figure, now up to her, now to the star-speckled sky. The others—apart from the painted one, who stared in silence at the ground—joined in at times. The display reached such a comic frenzy that she laughed. Flames flickered and swirled up around her nostrils and curling mouth with each chuff and titter, to the collective dismay of the creatures. Those who could do so turned and fled, tangling with one another in their rush. There was finally a reaction that she understood!
She looked back to the stationary creature, still bound to the tree. Its dark eyes seemed intent to bore into the soft soil. Its face held an expression she couldn’t grasp; but its mind radiated fury, fear, and above all…sorrow. Unlike the others, the fear did not seem to be directed toward her.
Well! she thought. Their oddness persists.
Perhaps she could delve into this one’s mind and sate her curiosity about these odd circumstances. She gazed down on the bound figure through narrowed eyes and reached out softly with her mind.
It did possess intelligence, to a greater complexity than many creatures she had encountered. The creature was not difficult to read on the surface, though there was subconscious resistance when probed deeper. It didn’t seem to know its mind was being examined; it was just so consumed with emotion that she couldn’t get through, no more than one could see a river bottom beneath churning rapids. She decided to start by learning the creatures’ language; additional information could then be gained through conversation. Language memories were easy enough to access, as it was using them in a seemingly heated inner dialog. To her surprise, this creature seemed to have full knowledge of at least four distinct tongues and patchy knowledge of a handful of others. She chose to start the conversation using the creature’s primary tongue: the one in which the creature spoke within its own mind. Since she could not physically reproduce the sounds, she instead communicated across the link that she had established with its mind.
“What are you called, little one?” she asked.
The creature’s head snapped up and looked to either side. Its eyes passed over her in their search for the source of the voice.
“Who said that?” it shouted, tugging at its bonds in attempts to peer around the tree. “Where are you? Help me, please!”
She chuckled and said, “Why do you look everywhere but to the most obvious source for a voice?”
With that, the creature froze. Its eyes slowly traced the shadow before it, until they locked on her own. It’s body shuddered and it seemed to momentarily cease breathing.
“It speaks? No, its mouth didn’t move.” Disbelief battled with confusion in its mind. “But, then…who?”
“Yes, I speak. I need not move my mouth, though. I cannot make the sounds you do.”
“But, I hear you,” the creature said, settling fully into confusion.
“In a way, yes; inside your mind.”
“But why this language?” The anger-tinged sadness was there again, strong and bitter. “What manner of demon are you that you know this tongue. There are none any longer who speak it. No one but—” it swallowed the thick knot of despair that threatened to steal its voice, “—me.”
What? She regarded the creature with increased curiosity. A language dead but for one speaker? In all the depths of her species’ memory and their limited experience with species who used language, she could recall nothing like it.
“I borrowed this language from your memory. How does a single creature come to be the only one who remains to speak a language when surrounded by others of its kind?”
Its eyes closed and a trickle of water (“tears”, that’s what they call them, she noted, a physical response to strong emotion, irritation, or trauma) squeezed free to streak the colors painted on its face. “Never mind. Just get on with it.”
“Oh? Get on with what?”
“Devouring me and slinking back to your demonic lair to leave the world in peace for another thousand years.”
She blinked her bright eyes at that. Her head cocked to the side and her feet shuffled in the turned soil as she considered her response.
“I must disappoint you. My last den is in no condition to be occupied again. Besides, I have only just awakened from something closer to twenty-three hundred hlan of sleep and I hardly feel like taking a nap, anyway.” The creature winced and looked up. “Also, devouring you would be rather difficult, given that my kind does not feed in a manner that you would recognize.”
“What?” it gasped, “Twenty-three hundred hlan? That’s not possible! Nothing has been alive for that long! This world is not even two hlan old!”
She threw back her head and laughed openly; thin ribbons of flame coursed in twisting ripples across her skin, lighting the confused face of the bound creature. When she regained her composure she returned her gaze to the creature and spoke again to its mind.
“No, little one. It is much, much older and I am older yet. My ancestors were still older before they reached the ends of their times, and there are things adrift in the abyss from which I descended that are far older than the oldest of my kind.”
The creature stared at the sky in silence for a while, as if it half expected some horde of unknown beasts to stampede down upon it from between the stars. Content to let it mull over her words, she took the opportunity to observe it more thoroughly. From what she had learned of the creature’s language and its underlying concepts, she was able to determine that it was female. Her body was smaller and more slender than those who had fled earlier, indicating that she might be either younger or perhaps her growth was stunted. As she noticed before, the girl had no hair on her head aside from thin strips over her eyes and little on her body, which was scant and fine except for three patches where it grew darker, and more dense. Despite her small stature, her muscles were well toned and she appeared to be a somewhat healthy individual; though, she appeared malnourished and showed signs of many old injuries. Adjusting her vision, she could see that the girl’s scars were internal as well as external. The surface damage was mostly superficial; but, below the skin lay evidence of many broken bones—all healed—of varying ages.
The pigment that had been placed in the skin of her forehead was arranged in six lines: a half circle, open toward the top of her head, and five straight lines that converged toward the center of the circle from outside and terminated just before touching the arc. The longest of these rays stopped just between the girl’s eyes. This pigment was different in composition from those used on the other individuals and reacted oddly to the girl’s body heat, probably due to metals suspended in the ink. There was more scarring around the pigment than there had been for the other creatures. She felt a pang of sympathy. From what she knew of animals’ physical reactions to trauma, the introduction of the pigment must have been traumatic.
The girl’s arms were stretched above her head and tied securely to the painted tree. Her legs were also bound to the bole at the ankles. The position pushed her chest and abdomen forward, stressing her already prominent ribs and hip bones. She was definitely underfed. An angular bird shape was painted in bright colors across the shallow curves of her chest, the white outline of its wings and tail trailed off into lines joining the other shapes and patterns painted on the rest of her body. The white lines made a stark contrast to her reddish-brown skin in the moonlight and dimmed the radiance of her warmth. She shifted in her bonds.
“So, you are not going to devour me?” the girl asked, shaking her head.
She snorted and repeated the girl’s gesture. “No.”
“You’re not going to reduce me to ashes with the unholy fires of your hatred for all things human?”
“I knew nothing of your kind until moments ago. Hate, too, is unfamiliar to me. But, I cannot make promises about my fires.” The bright crack of her mouth twisting upward at one side. “They burn what they will burn. I have no control over that.”
“I see.” Her face scrunched up a bit in thought and discomfort. “Eh…if you are not going to destroy me, perhaps you can help me?” She gestured her meaning by wiggling the fingers of her tied hands.
Her head cocked slowly from side to side as she pondered the girl’s request. If she approached enough to undo the bonds, her heat would set both the post and its burden alight. It seemed impossible at first, but a moment’s contemplation brought the inkling of a strategy. She circled around behind the post, still keeping her distance. When she arrived behind the girl, she edged forward until she detected a change in the temperature of the bindings. Watching the fine tendrils of steam begin to rise from the damp grass ropes, she kept her senses tuned to the girl for any sign of distress.
“Please, don’t leave me here!” the girl called out when she did not circle back around to the front of the bole. She strained once more to look around the post, calling out, “I’m sorry if I have said something to offend you. Come back!”
She replied, “I will not leave you confined here, but I cannot touch your bonds without harming you as well. If you can wait for a few moments, I think you will find my solution sufficient.”
The girl sighed with cautious relief and cried, “Thank you!”
The ropes ran out of moisture and began to blacken where they curved around the post, which showed signs of darkening as well. As smoke replaced the steam, motes of flame began to dance across the fibers. The blackened grass snapped and the girl fell to the ground with a startled squeak. Task complete, she backed away lest girl and tree began to burn as well. The girl yanked the remaining ropes from herself and lay on the ground rubbing her limbs. Watching the rope marks slowly fade, she decided to question the girl further.
“What was the purpose of this strange display?”
The girl scoffed at that. Her eyes stared up at the stars and wispy clouds overhead. There was a surge of renewed fury from her and her eyebrows pinched together, wrinkling the skin between them such that the mark on her forehead distorted. Watching the girl from a safe distance, she cataloged the expression with the feeling of embittered disgust that seeped across the mental link behind the wave of anger.
“Several days ago, the night watch of the village where I live witnessed a nightmare in the west. A mountain in the middle of that range—” the girl raised an arm and pointed with a thumb toward the mountain whose upper slopes gaped darkly under the moon “—opened and a light like the sun spilled out. It was so bright that all who looked in that direction had to shield their eyes; one or two who looked on it directly have yet to recover their full sight. All of the village folk were roused by the cries. Many ran outside and regretted doing so. The sound of the blast could be seen as it rolled down from the peaks and over the flatlands. Some said it went through the forest and the plain like a wave, but in the air it was like a wall of heat. When it fell upon the village, it drove livestock mad and sent everyone cowering. After the first and second terrors passed, the villagers gathered and beheld the final horror; half of the mountain’s summit had vanished and a shadow, wreathed in flame, was wandering the slopes. A handful whispered that a demon had been loosed and was laying waste to the mountains.
“The elders met to discuss this vision with the village shaman. He insisted that the whispers were true: a demon from ancient tales had indeed arisen from one of the deepest hells and would destroy the world of men. His tale did not convince the elders, until the demon…that is,” she paused to look up at her shadowy audience, “until you began to move in the direction of the village. The course of your fire could not be denied. It was decided by the shaman that a sacrifice should appease you and return you to your slumber.
“The sacrifice had to meet certain…requirements,” the girl said as she got up carefully, testing her weight on her still tingling feet. Satisfied that they would hold, she looked back up into the formless void—whose brilliant eyes followed her movements—and continued, “There were only three who met the criteria that the shaman named, myself included. Since the two others were both granddaughters of elders, I was deemed,” the corners of her mouth turned down in time with the wrinkling of her nose and her gaze shifted back to the ground, “more fitting.”
She lapsed into uncomfortable silence, absently rubbing at her wrists. The fury that crackled across the mental bond was intense enough that it almost concealed the girl’s deep sadness. Perhaps a change of subject was in order.
“You have not answered my first question. What are you called? I do not feel right thinking of a self-aware being only as ‘creature’ or ‘girl’.”
Dark eyes looked up to her warily. “May I have your name first?”
She huffed pensively and a low rumble rose and fell deep in her chest. “My name does not consist of words. It is a…feeling?” She paused, trying to find a way to put it. “The closest your language could come would be ‘the joy that comes from the warmth when the sun appears suddenly from behind thick clouds’ or perhaps ‘first warm dawn of spring’; or something similar.” The paws of her forelimbs scuffed at the churned soil beneath her. It didn’t feel like much of an explanation and the girl still seemed confused. After so many eons spent alone, it seemed important in ways she could not define that this sentient little thing understand her. “Not clouds of water like in the air of this world. Deep in the abyss above the sky, there are clouds of glowing dust and gas left after stars far larger than this world’s sun have died. My kind are hatched within the greatest of such clouds. When I hatched, I flashed—much like what your people saw from the mountain—and that inspired my name.” She smiled, content with the addendum; but the smile wavered when she saw that her small acquaintance’s features had hardened and felt her sadness increase and mingle with the disgust.
“…my people,” hissed through clenched teeth.
The bright eyes gazing down on the girl cocked in bemused curiosity.
“They are not,” she shouted, to the ground and to the shadowy form towering over her, “my people! I have no people; and I have no name! My chance to receive a name was stolen from me along with my people and the life that I knew as a child.”
She took a deep, shuddering breath and continued, calmer but still staring into the dirt with fists trembling at her sides and wrath blazing in her mind, “The Antsezi, my true people, reserved naming for when their children were old enough to demonstrate who they were as a person. Before I reached my naming day, we were attacked. We were nomads who bought and sold goods from province to province, all across this continent. One night, a raiding party of the Phranhikaf—from a village near the route we were traveling—came upon us. They sought to kill us all and take everything of value. We usually took a longer path—closer to the coast—to avoid this region; but, this time we had perishable items that needed to reach their destination quickly and our leader chose speed over caution. The murdering thieves surrounded our camp and set a ring of fire around us. They killed any who tried to flee the camp and let the fire take the rest. It took nearly all of the tribe, my friends, my parents; but it refused to take me.
“When the embers cooled, the thieves came to claim the goods and money that had been spared from the fire by our storage chests. They found me and took me to their village, where they forced me to work for them. Their shaman gave me this when I arrived at the village,” she touched the tattoo on her forehead, and a fleeting memory of the pain rushed into the listener in time with her fingers running across the lines. “The symbol of my tribe was a rising sun with five rays. He carved it into my face, tainted the cuts with ink from our supplies, and said that it was now the sign of a slave.
“If I failed to obey—struggled or tried to escape—I was beaten, confined, and starved until I submitted. The fact that I survived the flames branded me at once a monster and a totem: evil and good fortune at the same time.” She shook her head, hot tears streaking through the paint on her cheeks. “Family and people murdered, bound to a life of abuse and slavery…how can that be good fortune?
“I was never to be free and never named; and because I was not of the Phranhikaf, I am here.”
She looked up, her face now expressionless and cold, belying the fury and pain that rushed out of her and stirred the otherwise silent listener above her.
The girl raised her hands and began ticking points off on her fingers. “‘The sacrifice must be a young woman who has not been taken as a mate.’ As if I would have allowed it, even if any had been brave enough to try it. ‘She must be not younger than five summers and not older than fifteen.’ This is my nineteenth year; but, they counted my age from when they captured me thirteen years ago, insisting that then was when I was born into my new life. The elders argued that their children would bring great pride and benefit to the village, if they were spared. Whereas, I did not belong in the village and would not be missed. Sacrificing me would slay two men with the same arrow. Dying would have been a welcome enough release from slavery, but the thought of my sacrifice saving that clan of murderers was disgusting.” She stood staring up into the strange, dark void where four blazing eyes squinted down at her like living stars and concluded in consternation, “Why in the gods’ names am I airing my personal grief to a phantom made of fire and shadow? None of this even makes any sense to you, I’m sure.”
“There is much that I do not understand in what you said,” she replied. “However, your emotions convey sufficient meaning to me when your words do not.”
Several minutes of uncomfortable silence followed. She lifted her eyes from the girl and stared up into the stars, watching as their distant rays bent and wavered through the air while the small form slumped to sit against the painted pole that was meant to have been her sacrificial altar. Her arms circled around her knees, pulling them tight to her chest. Angry, lonely tears continued to slide down her paint streaked cheeks causing pigment-stained drops to splatter in milky starbursts upon the girl’s arms and knees. Bringing her gaze back down from the stars, she broke the silence.
“You survived the flames that took all of your people?”
“Yes. I choked on the smoke, but the fire itself did not harm me. I’ve never known why.”
“Could you feel my heat when I released your bonds?”
“I felt only a little warmth,” she said with a shake of her head then stopped, craning her head to look at the scorched side of the post. “Though, it was clearly hot enough to burn through the grass and blacken the wood…”
Hmm, she thought with two pairs of glowing eyes squinting down at the strange girl, interesting.
“You are alone and cold, lost in this world as am I. You have no people; my kind are scattered across the universe. Loneliness has never occurred to me and perhaps it only does now because some trace of it has crossed to my mind from yours. Searching through your memories, I think I have found a gesture that might allay some of that loneliness for both of us.” She dipped her head, bringing it down to the eye level of the girl, still safely distant. “I wish to embrace you, for us to both know that we are not alone in spirit.” She suddenly lifted her head up again, cocking it to the side and crouching on folded legs at the unexpected emotion that rose within her. She had difficulty determining if its source was herself or the girl. “However, the gift that protected you from the heat of the fire of your youth may not protect you from mine.”
The girl looked at her silently for several moments, until a quiet thought came tumbling out of her mind. It grew stronger as it rushed to the surface and burst like a bubble out of the sea’s depths. “Ishné”, a complex word meaning at once hope and relief.
“Ishné? I do not understand.”
The human became flustered and looked away. “I was thinking about your name and something I felt once as a young child when a great storm came. It went on for days and caused terrible flooding. I thought that the world was ending, that the air itself would turn to water and we would all be swallowed. The storm finally stopped one night and the next morning brought blue sky and sunlight. All of the darkness, flood, and fear was replaced by light and warmth. That was what we felt, well…what I felt: relief at the passing of danger and hope for better things to come. It’s probably our closest word for your name.”
She smiled at that. “If you find it easier to address me by that word, I do not mind.”
Dark brown eyes looked earnestly into her own. “If your heat were to consume me, Ishné, at least I would have known warmth at the end instead of the cold to which I am accustomed. I could be with my people again, wherever they are. Even if you destroyed me, you would bring an end to my suffering and I can think of no better way to go than in your embrace.”
When she finished speaking, the girl leaped up and rushed to her new companion. The small creature stood on the balls of her feet to wrap her arms around the base of Ishné’s neck. Shocked at the sudden sensation of the tiny creature pressing against her, she stood still for a moment with eyes wide. Smoke. She jerked and craned her neck to find the source, certain that her new friend must already be succumbing to her heat. Thin wisps of smoke trailed up from the tiny arms, face, and chest that pressed against her. However, there was no hint of pain from the girl’s mind. Leaning back, she raised the paws of her forelimbs to the girl’s shoulders and gently eased her away to check for harm. She turned the small body slightly and ran the long digits of her paws carefully down the unharmed skin of the girl’s arms.
Only the paint smoked and charred. The multicolored bird motif had transferred onto her own skin and mirrored images now flickered in small sparks of blue and green flame on both of them, though only the human could see it; to her it was but a barely perceptible darker spot, dissolving into her brightness. The girl followed her glance to both of their chests then looked up into Ishné’s glowing eyes and shrugged, throwing her arms wide again with sad, questioning eyes and a lopsided smile. Looks fine to me, she thought. Whatever the reason, she seemed utterly immune to heat of even this intensity. She crouched to bring herself closer to the girl’s height and her forelimbs brought the girl in close again. Ishné lowered her head over the girl’s shoulder and pressed her chin gently to the soft skin of her back, fully enveloping the poor thing’s small frame. Unconscious of the action, she extended her forewings around the embrace, as if to block the girl from any further harm. Tiny arms clutched her tighter and the girl began to cry in earnest.
Long, heaving sobs shook the tiny frame as years of slavery and loneliness fell away. Everything came flooding out of her mind, washing Ishné in a brief lifetime of turbulent emotion and memory. Six years of blissful childhood travel with family and tribe unfolded before her. Sprawling, cacophonous cities were interspersed with winding roads, quiet farms, and peaceful towns. Then, the attack. Bright flames licked up from the dark grasslands on every side of the encampment. Terrified people jostled one another within their infernal corral, searching the chaos for any exit or shouting for their loved ones. Those that rushed through the fires died screaming, out of sight of the rest. The circle drew closer. Families retired in terror to their tents and pavilions to await the end. Tall figures, the girl’s parents, guided her on either side. Her father ushered the two of them into their tent and remained outside, dousing the walls with water from a bucket she never saw him grab. The bucket clattered across the ground outside as he rejoined his family. Inside their tent the trio sat huddled together on the ground. The father’s face was torn between the kindly stoicism that the little girl knew so well and terror. The child’s confusion and disbelief swelled in Ishné’s mind: he couldn’t be scared, not him. The mother’s face bent down to kiss her daughter on the cheek and whisper that all would be well.
The flames encroached enough to directly assault the tent cloth. Inside, the air became thick with smoke and steam. Her breath seemed to wedge in her throat and her ears rang with the coughing of her parents, over the continuous snapping and roaring of the conflagration. Despite the water her father had thrown on the fabric, constellations of bright orange sparks began to appear and quickly spread into gaping mouths whose black tongues lashed between orange teeth. Belongings near the walls smoldered and ignited. The smoke was thick and bitter. Her parents wrapped themselves around her and each other. It wasn’t long before mother and father, succumbing to the smoke and foul air, went limp and heavy at her sides. As the darkness crept across her vision, her last sight was of the motionless figures of her parents and the fingers of flame that began to steal across their clothes.
She awoke to chilly air breaking through her crumbling clothes and the cold, rough hands of the brigands. The first one to seize her dropped her immediately. Through her watering eyes, she saw angry red welts rising on his palms and fingers. Another approached, wearing a pair of the thick leather gloves that some of the looters used to rummage though the debris. His hard grasp hurt her ankles. She was pulled from the ruined tent. There was a brief glimpse of two smoking heaps of ash, bone, and charred flesh where her parents had been. She was not so young that she couldn’t know what she was seeing. Screams echoed in her ears and her own soot-covered, coppery hands stretched out before her, scrabbling in the ash and dirt. Someone growled at her in an unknown language and a booted foot caught her in the ribs. The breath went out of her and she rolled to a stop at the feet of the stone-faced hulk that would later go on to become the brigands’ chief. Her chest and belly heaved, struggling to fill her lungs as he lifted her from the ground by her thick, curly hair. Dangling from his fist, the pain from her broken ribs and stretching scalp, and the difficulty regaining her breath pulled her back into unconsciousness.
When her eyes opened again, she was in a dark, ill-smelling hovel. Shafts of early morning light stabbed through small gaps in the walls. They shifted in long arcs with the rising sun outside, like bright spears piercing the dust and mold spores in the heavy air. The stone-faced brute was there, as were several old men. The oldest one was a bent, naked, foul-smelling stick of a man with tattoos covering his body. He sat by a weak fire, examining a sooted copper pendant.
As the old man ran a thumb over the face of the trinket, he spoke to her in the brigands’ tongue. He scowled upon finding that she didn’t understand him. He tried two other languages before finding one that she knew. In it, he asked her about the pendant. On its surface was a rising sun. Five rays bearing enamel of different colors radiated from the half-circle. She explained in a trembling whisper that it was her tribe’s emblem and recited the meanings of the colors and shapes as she had learned them.
The shaman let out a cold, gurgling chuckle and nodded to himself. Returning to his tribal tongue, he croaked a command to the gathered men. She was grabbed from both sides and held to the ground, each limb pinned by an elder of the clan. Stoneface held her head still between his huge hands and sneered down at her. The old shaman shambled around the fire and approached her. One of his hands held the pendant and a small phial of ink; the other held a short knife. She struggled in vain against the hands that held her down.
The old man crouched over her and held the pendant before her face. He told her in the tongue she knew that her people were destroyed and her tribe dead forever. His gnarled hands rotated the pendant until the symbol was inverted. Now, he told her, this emblem was to be the mark of a slave. He placed the pendant face-down on her forehead and struck the back of it hard the pommel of his knife. Stars flashed before the girl’s eyes as he withdrew the pendant and cast it into the fire in the center of the hovel. Then, he bent over her head again. The sharp tip of the knife bit into the skin of her forehead and followed the indentations left by the pendant. Blackness took the girl again halfway through the carving of the semicircle. She awoke the next morning with her scalp shaved bare, a dirty bandage on her forehead, and pain that would follow her for months. The thirteen years that followed were a flurry of cold floors, beatings, starvation, and torment. Every time her native language fell from her lips, she was whipped and forced to stand through the night with a coal from the cooking fires held in her mouth. It became a game with the village children to push her into the bonfires during seasonal celebrations. The fire did no harm, but her stumbling in the burning wood lead to sprains, cuts, and a few broken bones. If her fall disrupted the fire, she was beaten and forced to reassemble the scattered logs by hand. Ishné—witnessing that life from the girl’s perspective—experienced every new trauma as if it was happening to her own body.
Tears welled in the girl’s eyes, before hissing into steam. To Ishné’s surprise, her own hot tears began to fall as well. It must be an effect of being linked to the girl’s mind, she thought to herself. Faintly luminescent drops pattered and smoldered where they struck the ground. Long minutes dragged by as the pair wept together.
Once the girl’s tears ceased, she stepped back and wiped her eyes. Her body glowed with borrowed heat. She looked up at Ishné and gasped, drawing a concerned glance from her new friend; but, the expression on her face and the emotion that welled up in her mind was sheer delight. Dawn had broken during their embrace and the bright rays of the sun were once more playing and scattering in shifting rainbows through Ishné’s dark hide. The dancing colors finally gave definition to her form. Where before there had been only a vague shadow, there were now curves, planes, and folds. A flash of the girl’s vision reached Ishné through the link. Seeing the refracted rays briefly through the girl’s eyes triggered her own distant memories of youth and she smiled down at her.
“If you will accept it, I would like to offer a name to you as well. I cannot address you as ‘girl’.”
“Really?” she said in surprise.
Ishné nodded and instructed the girl to close her eyes. She sent memories of the nebula where she was hatched into the girl’s mind. Billowing dust and gas slowly danced together in the void, held in the soundless throes of their collective gravity and the various forces which each particle exerted on its neighbors. Bombarded by stellar radiation, some of the suspended substances fluoresced in spectra of light few creatures could perceive. Nestled within the thickest area of the cloud, a bright sphere burned. Wisps of matter drifted between countless, multi-hued orbs—eggs of her kind—as the fledgling star’s gravity drew in all of the nebula that was within reach, adding fuel to its quickly growing furnace. The vision faded and the girl opened her eyes again.
Her face brightened. “That was beautiful! Was that the cloud you spoke of before?”
“It was. The bright point of light was a new star. It lived a fast and violent life, growing to massive size before losing stability and exploding. While it burned, it fed us in our eggs. The force of its death cast us out to great distances in all directions. What we call such stars would be very close to ‘Caere’ in your tongue.”
The girl snickered. “Somehow I would have expected something grander than ‘Light Egg’ from a race of timeless demons, or…whatever your kind are.”
Shining eyes watched her quizzically. “It is hard to find a word in your language that encompasses all of the energy that is given forth by the hatching stars; or any star, for that matter. ‘Demon’ is an equally challenging concept for me. It seems to refer to something that I have never encountered.”
The girl shrugged and said, “What was the name that you were thinking of? I appreciate the kindness,” she grinned, “but I don’t know that I feel comfortable answering to ‘Light Egg’.”
“Just ‘Cae’.” All four of her eyes suddenly narrowed and the corners of her mouth pulled up in mirth. “Unless, of course, you think ‘Re’ is more suitable.”
The fit of laughter that struck the girl threatened to knock her to the ground. It was a release, even more than the crying had been.
“I think not! If I ever meet people again, explaining my name with ‘in your language it would be egg’,” she placed a hand on her hip and waved the other in an exaggerated, dismissive gesture, “‘it’s a long story.’ would be awkward at best! Saying my name means ‘light’ would be less awkward.”
“Perhaps invoking the image of starlight associated with the name will also give you a happier meaning for this?” she asked brushing the digits of one of her forepaws across the girls’ forehead, indicating the tattoo. In response, the metals in the ink glowed a soft red.
“Perhaps—,” the girl trailed off, then her eyes brightened. “Yes. Yes, it will,” she said and leaned against her new companion again, resting her head where Ishné’s neck joined her body. “Thank you.”
For a few moments, the differences between them dissolved. They were not an ageless beast from the stars and a tormented human. They were but two lonely individuals. Both of them were briefly able to let past and future fade away and simply enjoy the presence of a kindred spirit.
* * *
Notes on pronunciation:
The vowels in “Cae” are voiced independently, so that her name sounds like “’kʰɑːeɪ”, rather than “’keɪː”. “Ishné” is “’iʃn’eɪː”—stress on the second syllable.