Healer

by Aaron Zimmerman


Tayo held very still. A bead of sweat glinted down his dark skin from a mass of unkempt hair. His lips formed meaningless syllables in concentration. A speck of color below the water inched closer, bobbing side to side. The fish ambled further up the bank inspecting the rocks for anything edible. It moved left and further toward the shore. Left again, passing beside the stillness of Tayo’s waiting hands. Tayo summoned his swiftness and lunged for it.

The fish slipped through Tayo’s fingers and darted back into the center of the river.

Ponto!” Tayo stomped a few times in the shallow water on the edge of the river and looked around for another target.

Seeing none, he slapped the surface of the river, sending beads of water across the river and onto the far bank. Water droplets landed at the feet of a woman he had not noticed, his concentration wholly upon his prey.

Her skin was the color of sun-baked earth. She wore a cloth around her waist, secured with a leather strap visible above her hips. The midmorning light danced off of a black sun pendant between her breasts. Dark hair fell past her shoulders. Long, flowing hair…

His stomach churned with a mixture of adolescent fascination and fear. None of the women of his people, the Maru, wore their hair loose. She had to be of the Kana.

She stared back at him with a half-smile. Her eyes were bright and curious.

Maru,” she said pointing to herself with her eyebrows raised. It was a strange lie, did she think Tayo did not know his own people?

She looked to be just a little older than he was, perhaps 15 or 16. Her face tilted and a strand of hair fell across her forehead between her eyes. The muscles of her chest rippled with shallow breaths. Tayo looked back up to her eyes. His heart was pounding.

She pointed into the forest behind her. Tayo heard something approaching. She was not alone. That could only be bad news.

Tayo started backing away. The woman took two steps toward him, gesturing emphatically and speaking words Tayo could not quite understand. He held out his empty hands, trying to look unafraid and unthreatening. He took another step backward.

A twig snapped in the trees behind her and she turned toward it. Tayo dashed up the river bank. She bellowed something at his back, but Tayo had no time to consider the strange words. He heard a splash as he darted for the forest line. Perhaps she was coming after him then. Another splash and another.

An arrow twanged into a tree a few feet away. Tayo looked back to the river bank and saw the archer. The blue painted man nocked another arrow and Tayo darted around a tree.

He ran without having to think about his path. While most Maru children had been content to live behind the walls of their home, he had spent his childhood among the trees and they sheltered him as he fled. His mind wandered over the encounter, his thoughts always returning to the shine of her hair.

After a few minutes of flight, Tayo paused and turned to examine the depths of the forest for any sign of pursuit. After several ragged breaths, he nodded and turned to run to his village.

Kana!” He bellowed, running under a guard tower and through the eastern gate. “To the east! Kana!” Above him a horn sounded almost immediately. It was joined by several others of slightly different pitch from the other sides of the village.

The stronghold of the Maru stretched a mile across. The buildings were mostly built of mud brick, but there were some of dark wood and white stone as well. The village was surrounded on all sides by a ten-foot wall that served to steer any attackers into waiting lines of Maru at one of the four gates in the cardinal directions.

It had been a month since the last time the Kana appeared before their walls. The Maru themselves had launched a raid against their bitter enemy some two weeks earlier. The two peoples traded blows like warriors locked in a duel. Neither was able to gain an upper hand, much less land a killing blow.

The Maru warriors were already assembling in the courtyard before the town’s great hall. They smeared green paint around their arms and faces and tightened leather straps. A few waved to Tayo as he ran by. Tayo lowered his eyes involuntarily. He would not fight with them today, nor any day to come. He had been chosen by the healer as apprentice some years earlier. While his friends spent their time training, Tayo spent his gathering herbs and setting broken bones. His childhood friends had not resented him for the distinction, but Tayo had never been able to bury his boyhood fantasies of green paint and glorious battle.

Tayo hid the grief from his face and waved back encouragingly. He ducked through the doorway of his master’s hut gasping for breath.

The horn sounded minutes ago, what kept you?” Molan asked. The elder healer was bent over a table of metal tools and leather straps. He was slightly softer and rounder than the Maru warriors, but no less impressive for that. His face was clean-shaven and his hair was cropped close to his scalp.

I … was … fishing,” Tayo replied in between gasping breaths.

Molan chuckled in immediate understanding. “I don’t know why you bother with such nonsense. How many?” he asked.

I only saw three,” Tayo replied.

"Three?” Molan furrowed his bushy, graying eyebrows.

Yes,” Tayo answered.

Molan looked up and grunted noncommittally. He separated the potions he may need from those he could leave behind. He lay various instruments of healing along a white cloth. He rolled up the cloth and tucked the bundle into a leather bag. Tayo grabbed his own and followed his master out of the hut.

The healer and his apprentice hurried across the short distance to the wall where they could wait in relative safety for their skills to be called upon. Tayo jumped and pulled his head over the top. Tayo could not make out any details but the shaven-headed warriors looked much the same as the Maru, save the sickeningly garish blue paint that marred their faces and limbs.

There are many more than three." He grinned at his master.

The Maru filed efficiently out of the village and formed a defensive line before the gate. They held their blades to the light above them and began to whisper. They were the whispers of water that grinds away stone, the whispers of grass bending in the wind. The sum of their whispering rumbled through the morning air and set Tayo’s heart beating faster.

Arrows flew from the tower above. The normal complement of watchers had been joined by another dozen Maru archers. The soft war chanting of the Kana began to mingle with the Maru chanting as the two forces closed. The two songs harmonized and clashed and intermingled until they could not be distinguished.

Why do they attack?” Tayo muttered to his master, analyzing the battle lines. The Kana had lost their surprise and were attacking a fortified position with no advantage of numbers. They would be routed today, thanks to Tayo’s warning.

Why indeed,” Molan muttered. The healer sat with his back to the wall and looked into the sky.

They fight for Ikana and Imaru, just as we do. One day they will fall, or we will, and the matter will be settled,” the healer said to the sky and then shrugged to Tayo, “Or maybe we’ll just keep hacking at each other for the rest of time.”

The line of Kana moved faster, closing the final few paces. Tayo felt as much as heard the impact of bone and steel from behind the wall. The songs grew to include screaming rage and screaming pain. The song was joined by the crunching and the clamouring of metal against metal.

Tayo grimaced and shook his head sadly. He should be there, he should be holding the line with his brothers and sisters, he should...

Patience, Tayo.” The old healer had closed his eyes. “Let the warriors have their say. Then it will be our turn to fight.”

Tayo peeked over the wall again. He saw the glinting of metal and spurting of blood but could not tell the difference between triumph and tragedy.

As the battle grew more frenzied, the disciplined line dissolved into several clustered skirmishes. A Kana warrior broke off one of them and sprinted for the gate. The shaft of an arrow stuck out of his shoulder, but the brute did not seem to notice it. The man was enormous, a full head taller than Tayo. He erupted through the gate and ran past the master and apprentice healers without care.

Three Maru waiting in reserve moved to intercept the infiltrator. They moved swiftly and Tayo’s heart lurched as he recognized one of them. He was an aging warrior but hardened by a life of killing and trying not to die. His hair was closely cropped to his scalp and his arms were streaked with green while his face remained unpainted. It was Tayo’s father.

It was over in seconds. The Kana brute deflected his father’s lunge and spun to bury his own blade in his father’s chest. As Tayo’s father crumpled, another Maru slashed down. The Kana was defenseless and the slash should have ended it, but the brute caught the blade in his bare hand and smoothly turned it back upon its wielder. Two of the three Maru reserves had fallen.

Tayo, wait!” Molan called as Tayo sprinted toward the skirmish. The remaining Maru was frantically dodging and blocking as Tayo arrived.

Tayo ran to his father and felt for a pulse. Faint. He kept one eye on the duel while he reached for the knife strapped to his calf. He hastily sliced the straps of his father’s breastplate. The jagged cut had missed the heart but pierced the lungs. Blood gurgled with each ragged breath. There was nothing Tayo could do.

Tayo bellowed his rage and spun to find the attacker. Molan was calling to him. But the words were noise without meaning. His father had fallen. He drew his knife from the sheath at his calf. It was heavier than it should have been.

Tayo flung himself into the duel. The Kana noticed Tayo’s approach at the last moment and took a smooth step to avoid the lunging blade. The Kana pivoted and sent Tayo flying with a kick to the gut. Tayo coughed and fought for breath on the ground. He struggled back to his feet just in time to see his remaining ally fall. The savage drove his blade through the Maru to the hilt and threw him against the side of a hut where he fell motionless.

Flee! A piece of his mind screamed. This is your death!

It was not hate that filled him, nor fear. This blue painted animal was prey and he was the predator. Tayo would kill him and that was all. Tayo charged.

As Tayo closed the final few yards, the Kana extended his arms to his sides and bellowed a challenge. He slashed down and Tayo held up his own blade in defense. The force of the blow was only partially deflected by the untrained parry. The blade knocked Tayo backward and bit into the meat of his arm. Tayo fell to his back, his blade gone and his mouth tasting of dust and metal.

The Kana stood over Tayo and repeated his guttural challenge and raised his weapon. Before he could strike, two blades erupted from the savage’s chest. The bellowing turned to gurgling and the Kana fell.

Molan stood behind the fallen warrior. With him was a tall woman. Tayo recognized her blade as the great sword of the Maru, nearly double the length of most Maru blades. It had been forged long ago by some forgotten technique and was the only one of its kind. The woman was Auda, the leader of the Maru. The battle must be over, the warriors returned to the city.

Molan bent over Tayo and examined his wound with practiced efficiency.

Fine.” Tayo clenched his jaw against the pain. “Them." He coughed and gestured vaguely toward the three fallen Maru reserves.

Molan nodded and was gone without a word.

Pain filled Tayo’s thoughts. He spit and pounded the earth with fury. He blinked back the vision of the jagged gash in his father’s chest. He looked away and covered his eyes, but the vision endured.

As the pain overwhelmed him, his thoughts returned to the woman at the river. He saw her lying above him, her face framed in starlight and her hands running down Tayo’s chest. Her hair fell onto Tayo’s face and he breathed in the scent of it. She called out to the gods as their joint pleasure grew more frantic.

He blinked away the strange vision. He wondered if she had died, or if she had killed, or maybe both, and all was dark.

                                                                                  ***

The wound must be bound," Molan said. Tayo blinked his eyes open.

He lay on a cot in the large interior of the healer’s hut. His body felt stiff, it felt squeezed into a skin that was not his own. He coughed.

Molan was over him in a heartbeat. “Tayo. Finally. If you’re done being an impudent fool, I could use your help.” Molan’s face disappeared and in its place were soft fingers on his cheek.

Oh Tayo, oh my son,” his mother whispered, holding his face in her hands. Tayo sat up and embraced her. His arm had been bound and hurt surprisingly little. He raised and lowered it experimentally.

How long?” he croaked and took the skin of water offered.

Thirty minutes, a bit more,” she muttered. She was a proud woman, a strong warrior of the Maru in her day. When her arm could no longer draw a bow she had turned to weaving. Her hair was cut short around her scalp. She had long since given up on the vanity of hair that had to be tended, washed, bound.

The metallic stench of blood filled his nostrils without warning and he fell into a fit of coughing. His mother held a wet cloth to his forehead. A drop of water ran down his cheek before his mother absently wiped it away.

Go.” His mother gestured to Molan as the coughing subsided. She put her hand on his shoulder. Tayo nodded and hurried to his master’s side by the surgery table in the center of the room.

The healer’s hut was one of the larger in the village. Twenty beds in rows occupied half of the space while the other half was dedicated to storage of medicines and work tables.

The artery of his leg has been sliced,” Molan said without looking up as Tayo approached. “Hold.” He nodded at the cloth he was holding against the warrior’s leg and Tayo took it. With each fleeting beat of the man’s heart hot blood pulsed around the edges of the cloth and ran down his fingers.

Ready.” Molan signaled and Tayo whisked away the cloth. Molan wrapped the bleeding leg with a tourniquet and cinched it tight.

Good, move on.” Molan nodded to the next wounded man awaiting treatment and Tayo fell into place beside him.

Some hours later, Tayo collapsed against the side of the tent. The pain had doggedly worked its way back into his arm and it intermingled with exhaustion. The death of his father was a coldness in his thoughts, a confusion of sorrow and pride.

Molan sat down next to him and held out a water skin. “You did well, considering,” he muttered.

A poignant silence fell between them and Tayo sensed what was coming.

What were you thinking? Ikana take you! You should have been killed.” Molan glared, any hint of tenderness gone. “You do not have the right to risk yourself so.” His master shook his head in condemnation.

I know.” Tayo’s eyes fell to the ground. “I’m sorry.” Tayo’s fingers felt suddenly cold and stiff and he rubbed them together.

Bah.” Molan shook his head and a small silence fell between them.

He was a good man, your father,” Molan relented after a pause, “A good man.”

Tayo massaged his eyes, trying to rub away the sight of the blood leaking from his father’s chest, the sound of liquid gurgling in his father’s lungs.

You stood against a Kana warrior today. That is no small thing.” A steady female voice cut into his revery. The leader of the Maru had wiped the blood from her face and hands but was still dressed in battle leathers. Her long sword was sheathed and strapped to her back.

Tayo shuffled to his feet in respect.

Perhaps you should not have done so.” She tapped the fingers of her right hand against her cheek and nodded to Molan. “But you showed courage. And you brought warning of the attack.” Auda’s face remained impassive despite the compliments. Tayo’s face warmed and he looked at the ground.

You have found your power, Tayo.” She spoke the words with an inflection Tayo could not completely understand. “I know you are tired, and you have earned your rest, but there is a thing you must do first.”

Tayo blinked in surprise. He felt Molan withdraw beside him.

Auda turned and ducked through the door. Molan nodded after her, his face drawn into tight lines. Tayo hurried to follow.

Auda was a dozen paces away already, walking deeper into the village. Tayo followed her in the dusty twilight.

The singing could have been mistaken for wind in the trees if you did not know what to listen for. Where the battle song had been defiance and strength, the song they sang now was sorrow and affirmation. They sang for their honored dead and their sacred mission. Their whispers were the stillness of water on a windless day, the sound of flowers blooming in the sunlight.

Tayo followed Auda through into the great hall in the center of the village. The room within which the Maru would debate and worship looked foreign to Tayo. It was bigger than he remembered, it was darker and less solid. The music from the surrounding city was trapped and reinforced by the pillars and the walls and the lantern light. He longed to close his eyes, to stop the pain in his arm and the taste of bile in his mouth. He longed to begin again tomorrow.

The center of the chamber was dominated by a statue of Ikana and Imaru emerging from the dark waters. The gods shaped the blackness below them into a world of color and balanced it high above their heads.Auda bent before a stone chest in the shadow of the gods. She retrieved a key from a chain tucked under her vest and unlocked it.

Tayo closed the distance. His heart quickened in sudden understanding.

Auda straightened back to her full height and turned. Across her palms she held a dark rectangular object about the length of a forearm.

Tayo, son of Laina and Raya. You have proven yourself a true-born son of the Maru. You have felt your power. For the sake of your people, you must hold the Ponto and prove that your power does not own you.”

When the world was whole and its people united, the Ponto had been found beneath a great tree. Just the sight of it had driven men to madness and depravity. It was mystery and magic and power. All who held it had claimed it. Desire fractured the world, turning brother against brother in pursuit of power. A great warrior had tempered himself against the corruption and locked the Ponto away. He founded the Maru on the oath to destroy any who would claim the power as their own.

Tayo could not take it. He would not take it. This was a test of his resolve. He had to flee, he needed to flee.

You must, Tayo,” Auda asserted. “As your father did, as I did, as Molan did, as all other Maru have.” His mind raced. She betrayed no hint of mirth or prank.

She continued, “You must allow the poison of it into your blood. You must hear its whispers of power and deny them. And you must do it now.”

Tayo set his jaw and took it.

It was surprisingly heavy and cool to the touch. It felt oily though his fingers remained dry. There were two raised circles on one of the rectangular sides. Each of these had a symmetrical scattering of holes in their center. The side opposite it had a length of cloth or something like cloth held tight against the surface. On the far end was a short protrusion, like a finger poking out of its metal body.

How long did he have to hold it? Was that enough? His mouth was dry and the skin of his neck itched. The singing from the surrounding village swelled louder in his eardrums.

A bulge on the side could collapse into the main body. As he released the pressure, the bulge returned to its original position.

He remembered suddenly where he was, what he was doing. The Ponto was in his hands. It seemed to grow larger and warmer in his fingers. It was fiercely hot in this accursed chamber. The itching across his body swelled to burning. The smells of incense and blood and musk solidified in his throat. The singing throbbed over him like waves crashing into rock.

That had to be enough. He tried to relax his fingers, but found them instead tightening around the oily metal. His vision colored around the edges. The crisp lines of the Ponto grew fuzzy before his eyes. He heard whispers from somewhere, he spun to find the source. His eyes fell upon the gods above him. Ikana and his partner leered down at his greed, at his willingness. They taunted him. They murmured of choosing and changing. They laughed at him.

He searched the spinning chamber frantically for some stronghold from which he could stand and resist. He burned with need, with the craving to understand and to make the right choice. He could not see. He could not hear. The Ponto was swallowing him, destroying his goodness and courage. He would die here, he would fall, babbling and frothing and be given a quick death. Who was he? What was he? The gods whispered back that he was failure. They named him indecision. He spun beneath them, unable to free his vision of their beautiful faces, their halos of flowing hair.

Put it down!” Auda was yelling to him through water that filled his ears. “Tayo! Remember yourself.”

That was he! He was Tayo! He found the thought in a corner of his mind and clung to it. He screamed it over and over though his mouth remained closed. He was Tayo. He was a healer, a son, a son of the Maru. He was Tayo!

The Ponto toppled from his hands and into the heavy stone chest. Auda quickly replaced the lid and locked it away.

Tayo fell to his knees and sucked in terrified, sobbing breaths. He babbled, forming incoherent words of apology and regret in a stream of sound.

You did fine, Tayo.” Auda sat beside him, her warrior aspect softening. “You did fine.” She grasped his hands and pulled him to his feet.

He was going to vomit. He needed water. He rubbed his oily fingers on the cloth of his pants, trying to wipe away the residue of evil. It filled the room and clawed at his nostrils.

He was on his feet and heading for the exit, holding onto Auda. The great statues of the gods loomed above him but he would not look.

After a few steps his breath grew easier and his head clearer.

He was Tayo.

He was Tayo of the Maru, and he had held the Ponto and lived. He had lived!

His mother awaited him outside the tent and he fell into her arms. Molan grasped Tayo’s hands in his and nodded his approval. Tayo raised his hands in triumph and lost himself in the silent singing of the Maru.

***

Tayo held very still. The deer walked slowly across his field of vision, either not noticing its impending doom or not caring. It took two steps one way, then three the other. It bent to taste the tall grass. Tayo’s lips curled and flexed in wordless concentration as he drew the arrow back on the bowstring and released it in one smooth motion as he had been instructed.

The arrow flew straight and fast and clanked harmlessly off a rock a foot to the left of his target. The deer darted into the forest.

Tayo kicked stones and flung oaths into the wind. He could follow the animal’s trail, but what was the point? He was no archer. His hands were better suited to softer tasks.

He walked to the long grass around the rocky outcropping to search for the confounded arrow. He muttered to himself as he did so, small angry musings on the beyond and what it could do with his archery skills.

He ducked around a tree and jumped back in alarm at the sight of a woman sitting not ten feet away with her back to a tree. He scrambled for his bow and hastily notched an arrow.

He scanned the trees behind her but saw no sign of any other.

It was the long-haired woman. She wore the same short cloth about her waist and the same black pendant of the sun upon her bare chest. Her eyes peered back at him, insolently unafraid.

What are you doing here?” Tayo bellowed but the woman only blinked. She leaned forward and rose to her feet. Her hair cascaded around her shoulders like falling water. She grinned at him playfully and gestured for him to come closer.

Tayo pulled the bowstring back. His eyes roamed over her body, but he found no weapon. Whys and whats bounced through his head and he lowered the bow in frustration.

Go!” He bellowed and she narrowed her eyes at him. It was not quite scorn in her face. Disbelief?

She spoke a few slow words with her hands raised in frustration, but Tayo refused to consider them. He was a son of the Maru. He would not suffer a heathen to trespass the sacred lands. She spat on the ground and Tayo drew the arrow back. His arm quivered.

Go!”

When she did not move he sent an arrow into a bush a few feet to her left in warning. It rustled through the leaves and thumped into solid wood.

The woman blinked and sputtered angry words. She gestured to Tayo and the forest around her. She pointed to the sky and the ground and gestured back at him expectantly. When Tayo did not respond, she jumped over a fallen tree, darted around a rock, and disappeared.

Tayo’s face moved between confusion and anger as she departed. He should have killed her, or at least bound her arms behind her and taken her back to the village. And yet…the way her hair fell, the way her eyes glittered, they way she shifted gently from foot to foot as she stood… And there was more. He remembered her, or maybe not exactly remembered her, but there were pictures of her in his mind that he could not explain.

He shook his head, trying to shake loose the strange thoughts. She was his enemy. Who else could she be?

He stretched and sighed. There was work to be done. There were medicines to make and sick to heal. He walked to the bush to find his arrow. At least this one was likely undamaged.

He parted the leaves into which his arrow had disappeared and saw it resting not in a tree, but in a wooden chest. It was as wide as Tayo’s arms outstretched and came up to his waist. Grass and vines grew around the base.

He reached out a hesitant hand. The wood was cold and weather worn. Rot had seeped into seams between boards.

He could open it.

The thought struck him suddenly. He was surprised at the quickening of his pulse and shallowing of his breath. It was no sin to open a chest. Unless…

He darted away and hid behind a tree. Of course it was a Ponto. The wood was nothing like that fashioned by the Maru. He should have realized the second he saw it. Perhaps he had.

He closed his eyes and exhaled. He was fine.

He stood and walked away. He did not look back.

                                                                                             ***

Three days later he sat with his back to a tree, staring at the rotting chest. He had told no one when he returned and it grew harder and harder to tell the longer he waited.

It was death to crave the Ponto. But the knowledge refused to release him. He found his daydreams full of treasures that would bring back the dead or render flesh as hard as stone.

It was not the Ponto that filled his thoughts, not exactly. It was the not knowing, the mystery. The chest was just wood. It could not harm him. He could open and look and see and then leave. He stood.

He sat.

He shook his head.

He left.

***

The next day he drove his knife between boards in a burst of fear and fury. The wood was soft and flaked away easily. The unexpected lack of resistance sent Tayo sprawling backward onto the ground.

Rain fell gently around him, wetting his hair and softening the ground. His bare feet squelched as he approached the revealed treasure.

The chest was filled with lumpy sticks. They ran the width of the box, slightly longer than Tayo’s arm. Each had a central metal section with strange protrusions hanging down from an otherwise straight body. One end was polished wood while the other narrowed to a dark metal tube.

They were Ponto, if there had been any doubt. The metal was intricately shaped and the wood was unsettlingly shiny. They were sleek and silent and sorrowful. It looked much the same as the Ponto locked away in the great hall. These were larger, but they shared some kinship of craftsmanship.

He should flee and tell Auda or the village elders. Let them deal with this strange artifact of the gods.

No. The task had fallen to him, and he had passed the trial once. It was his duty and he would investigate, at least a little more.

The Ponto was heavier than he had expected. The metal was cold and oily. The wood felt much the same. The bulging end must be a handle of some kind. He lifted the Ponto out of the box and held it before him. Perhaps it was some kind of walking stick? But that seemed wrong. The device whispered to him, trying to reveal itself, but the words would not quite coalesce.

He held it awkwardly, searching for some purpose behind the strange shapes and levers. He turned the device around and his hand nestled into place around one of the protrusions near the center. The first finger of his hand fell atop a small lever that he tugged at experimentally. It resisted but shifted under the pressure.

That was enough. He had to put it down, had to flee, had to pray in the temple for forgiveness. He had to put it down. If his father were here, he would scowl and wipe the rain off his shaven head and hold up his hand in warning.

And yet…

A weapon. The image in his mind finally solidified into words. It was a weapon! The realization fell heavy in his gut. His finger found the small lever.

He pulled it.

The Ponto erupted and tried to leap out of his hands, slamming into Tayo’s shoulder. He fell to the ground from the force and the surprise. He clutched his ears against the terrible thundering. Echos of its bellowing reverberated through the forest.

Tayo flung the Ponto to the muddy ground and ran.

He burst through the door to the hut that he shared with his mother and buried himself under blankets and self-recriminations. He ignored his mother’s inquiries and stared sightlessly at the wall. The place the Ponto had kicked ached in constant reminder of his weakness, of his foolishness.

His mother’s touch was cool against his face. He opened his eyes and saw her above him. She smiled gently, no questions or accusations, she just smiled and clutched his trembling hand.

Tayo exhaled slowly. He was Tayo. He closed his eyes and slept.

***

Bitter root,” Tayo said, concentrating on the stringy length of wood in his master's hand. “Can be chewed for minor pain relief.”

Molan grunted assent. “And this one?” Molan lifted a long leaf with a fuzzy stem.

Tayo squinted at it.

Witherweed?” he ventured, less certain.

And it grows…” Molan prompted.

“…in shade after a rainstorm.”

And its uses?” The old healer raised an eyebrow.

Tayo grimaced and ran a hand through his unruly hair.

Helps with…” Tayo muttered, watching Molan’s smile sour. “I mean it prevents…”

The old healer shook his head slightly.

And by prevents - I mean it encourages…digestion?”

Witherweed, Tayo. It’s called witherweed.”

Oh of course. It causes … withering.” Tayo rolled his eyes.

Molan shook his head with quiet laughter. “No, Tayo, it does not cause withering.” He mocked the word and held up his fingers to count along as he continued, “One leaf will induce pleasant hallucinations, two, vomiting and three, death.”

That’s kind of like withering,” Tayo muttered.

This one?” Molan sighed and held up broad-leafed fern.

The alarm rang in cold, clear notes through the morning air.

Molan grunted. “They are early this month.” The healer dropped his plants and hurried to the door, grabbing his satchel as he passed it.

Tayo grabbed a stack of clean bandages and added them to his own bag. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached also for his bow and pulled it over his head. It rested snuggly across his shoulders.

Tayo and Molan ran to the center of the city, to the courtyard before the great hall where the warriors were preparing.

Groups one and two to the north. Three stay back for now.” Auda’s voice cut through the sounds of straps tightening. She stood calmly before the assembling warriors. She dipped her finger into a pot of green paint and smeared lines across her face.

Tayo and Molan hurried behind the large group of warriors moving to the north. They settled into their positions behind the wall and Tayo pulled himself up to survey the scene. He saw nothing but empty grass and trees in the distance.

There’s no one there,” Tayo said.

He lowered himself back to the ground and shrugged.

The meticulous cordon of warriors formed beyond the gate. As the sounds of their movement tapered off, the morning grew ominously still. Auda whispered to one of her captains and scanned the treeline.

They waited.

A sound like the snapping of an enormous bowstring filled the quiet. Tayo squinted into the sky, tracking the movement of a great burning star against the openness. It rose to the heavens, slowing down until it stopped and hung motionless.

It began to fall, not a star at all, but a sphere of flame. Tayo tracked its descent with wondering horror. It fell faster and faster until it crashed through the roof of a hut and exploded with a sound like waves crashing into rock.

Cries of alarm filled the village. Some few scrambled to put out the fires.

With me!” Auda bellowed and ran for the trees. The warriors followed her.

What nonsense is this?” Molan grumbled as another of the spheres fell onto the city, exploding into pockets of flame between buildings.

It must be carrying some oil within its body,” Tayo thought out loud. “And launched by a large bow or-“

One of the orbs fell twenty feet away. It struck a stone building and spit fire over the dirt ground.

A woman ran to it and threw a pot of water. The flames spit and cackled.

Blankets!” Tayo called to her. “Not water! Use blankets!” It was an oil fire. Water would only anger it.

Tayo scrambled to demonstrate, abandoning his master at the wall. He pulled a fur from its perch on the wall of a nearby hut and tossed it over a small flame. He counted to three and removed it. The ground was scorched and smelled foul, but the flames were gone.

Use blan-” he began but his voice was drowned out by horns and the trampling of feet.

He looked up and saw a horde of Kana warriors breaking into the city from the east. He abandoned the fur and scrambled back to his feet, pulling his bow over his head. He spun toward the charging Kana and tried to notch an arrow but his hands fumbled at the string. There were dozens of them, blue painted demons charging with blades drawn. They bellowed and hacked at everything they passed. They were closing on him.

The arrow slid into place and Tayo tried to draw it back but his fingers lost the grip and the string snapped half drawn. It bit into his forearm and the bow fell from his hands.

The invading Kana met some small resistance from the reserve Maru but most of the Kana ran unopposed through the city slashing at civilians and buildings. A Kana woman charged Tayo swinging twin blades over her head. Her face was painted in a horror of blue shapes and loud angles. She fell on him, the knives driving down, down, toward his heart, toward his death. Tayo rolled away and tugged at the blade sheathed on his calf. He readied himself for the next attack but the woman fell suddenly, an arrow in her back. He looked up and saw an archer in the tower with a quivering bow.

Several more of the terrible orbs of fire had fallen, but they seemed to have stopped now. Auda must have found their source. She had better hurry back, the Kana were pouring into the city like molten metal. The Maru defenders had been initially disorganized and had only gotten worse.

His eyes poured over the wreckage of his city. He squinted at a blaze along the western wall and his breath caught in his throat. All thought of battles and duty evaporated as he ran through the burning city. He ran past the dying and the screaming, past Maru and Kana, not bothering to care which was which. He burst into the hut within which he had lived his entire life. It had been hit directly. Light streamed through a hole in the roof. Scattered flames lit the interior still brighter.

His mother lay unmoving in a tangle of burning cloth on the floor. Her shirt and leggings were spattered with flames. Unnatural smoke filled the room.

Tayo cut away the cloth around his mother’s feet and lifted her across his arms. Her skin burned against his. He lunged out of the building as the walls began to crumble around him. He gritted his teeth against the heat and the watering of his eyes and half fell, half lunged out of the hut. He was wracked with coughing and his mother fell awkwardly out of his arms.

Smoke poured out of the hut behind him. It swirled and twisted like water. It hovered over the village like accumulating storm clouds.

As the coughing subsided, he rolled over to his mother. Her eyes stared into his and blinked a few times. Angry splotches replaced the flames on her skin. Tayo reached for a salve from his satchel. His satchel…

It had likely fallen when he had been wrestling with the bow or maybe the Kana woman. He looked across the shattered city toward his earlier shelter behind the wall. He kissed his mother’s cheek and started running.

He ran past groups of Maru sweeping for renegade Kana between buildings. He caught sight of Auda bellowing commands. Kana were pouring back out of the western gate from which they had entered. It seemed their attack was at an end, but the damage had been done. Bodies lay everywhere and at least a dozen buildings were burning. The great hall was among them. But Tayo spared them no thoughts as his eyes searched frantically for his satchel in the debris. He thought only of the pain coursing through his mother’s body and how he could fix it, how he could heal her.

He found the satchel resting against a building next to a motionless blue painted woman. He snatched the strap and pivoted without slowing to return to his mother.

He sprinted around bodies and burning buildings. He jumped over the dead and the moaning injured. He set aside the realization of how bad this raid had been for his people. He had to help his-

His mother lay still, her eyes open but without focus. A Kana man stood sneering above her. Droplets of blood fell off the man’s blade. Tayo watched them curiously. They seemed to slow in the air, teardrops floating before splashing to the ground in a cloud of dust.

Ash and light hung motionless around him. Tayo’s breath was loud in the sudden stillness. Each exhale blew from his lips like wind over the sea. His eyes darted from Kana to mother to the meager blade in his own hand. His arm was streaked with burns and dirt.

Tayo’s mind drifted from his body. He hovered above the tableau, watching his mortal face contort in rage. He smirked at the churning of his own legs. It looked like he was running through water and screaming at emptiness. Hair fell haphazardly around his face, covering his ears. His mother had wanted him to cut it. It wasn’t becoming a man to have such long hair. But he hadn’t. He liked the way it framed his face. He liked the way it bounced when he ran.

Across a short distance, the Kana warrior was bellowing challenges and spittle. His hands and forehead were painted blue. Beneath a leather breastplate beat the heart of his mother’s killer. It was a strong heartbeat. It beat with the beauty of consistency.

Tayo’s attention drew higher still, through the amorphous smoke pooling over the village, threatening to rain and wash away the Maru entirely in waves of blue fire. He soared higher, above the village and higher still, until he could have believed himself Ikana himself, holding all of creation in his hands. Below him the straight river divided the forest. The forest separated the cities. Beyond the cities, the waves crashed into the crust of beaches and fell back and crashed again. Beyond the waves, nothing but the blue-green sea in every direction. Everything organized, well planned, and utterly symmetrical.

He fell back to his mortal body as the Kana man lunged. It was nothing to step aside and nothing to drive his own blade into the passing man’s throat. It was less than nothing to tear the blade out and watch the man fall before him gurgling and grasping at his ruined neck.

Tayo watched him die. The barbarian’s eyes found Tayo’s and some specter of understanding passed between them.

Tayo dropped his blade and fought to quell the shaking in his arms. Sweat beaded down his dirty face. He fell to the earth. His mother’s pulse was gone.

His thoughts swam with fire and blood, with Kana demons and defeated Maru mothers. But mostly he thought of swirling clouds and the crashing of blue-green waves in constant predictability.

He could stop it.

The thought snapped his eyes open. His mouth was dry and the skin of his neck itched.

He could claim the Ponto.

He looked around guiltily, but he was alone. The Kana had departed and the Maru were seeing to their wounded.

The sky pressed its vastness upon him from all sides. It squeezed and prodded. It whispered to him of choices to be made. The whispers grew to thunder behind his eyes. His heart pulsed with power.

But the price… Could he give up his life? Could he spend his very soul? There had to be another way.

He looked around and was reminded of it.

Around him the Maru began to sing a soft melody. But not soft as in sorrow, it was soft as the hands of a healer, as in a stone drifting to the bottom of a river. It pulsed and prodded above the burning huts and blanketed the city with its stillness. The stillness of a snake awaiting its prey, of the air in the center of a storm.

Tayo stood and wiped his mother’s blood off his hands.

The price of claiming such a weapon was clear, but what of the price of not claiming it? How many mothers was his soul worth? How many fathers would he see die because he would not sacrifice?

The Maru would sing sad songs for him, for his corruption and weakness. But they would be here to sing.

He was the son of Raya and Laina and he would heal the Maru of their Kana disease.

The slow song swelled around him and he ran.

***

Tayo held very still. He looked down the long body of the Ponto, eyeing the trajectory the shaftless arrowheads would follow. The body of the weapon fit naturally against him, as if formed for his chest and his chin. The long weapon bobbed slightly up and then to the left. It was hard to hold it completely still.

He pulled the lever and it kicked under his chin, but not so violently now that he was its master. He walked to the tree and examined the clean holes left behind by his barrage. The power swelled in his belly, a raw fire fueled by every test, by every discovery of hidden workings.

He had found fourteen of the weapons in the chest. Beneath them were curved containers filled with skinny arrowheads. The weapon could only speak so many times before needing to be refilled.

He upended his satchel and calmly replaced the useless bandages and jars with the metal arrowheads. He took two Pontos and covered the box with branches.

He had never been on a raid himself, but that hardly mattered. He had but to walk west. There was no need for planning, for secrecy or strategy. He would approach the city and destroy them and that was all. He crossed the river holding his weapons over his head. There were no animals to see him cross, no fish in the water to distract him, no long-haired women to stare at him.

The Kana were celebrating their victory as he approached. Joyful chanting floated through the air. Their music was soft and disgusting. It turned Tayo’s stomach and he raised his weapon and fired into the sky. The chanting faltered and stopped and Tayo felt better for the settling stillness.

He raised his weapon to the tower on the eastern side of the Kana village. It looked out of place, so blue and terrible. He fired his arrows into the trumpeting Kana high above and they fell from the tower to his feet. He stepped over their bodies and walked brazenly through the mud brick huts and white stone buildings. The Ponto spoke for him, it blazed and bellowed and death fell around him like dusk settling into the trees.

He barely noticed arrows fired back at him and the charging warriors. He swatted them away like buzzing insects. He did not hear the screams of the dying men with their blades and bows. He gave no notice to the bun-haired women recoiling in terror or the children looking on in confusion. He dispatched them as easily as a child throwing stones into a river.

He was not Tayo, he was not of the Maru. He was Ikana made flesh, judging and knowing. Human lives were small things, far beneath his notice. He fought the crashing of waves. He fought the cries of a world sick with symmetry.

And he healed it.

The village was still as he returned. They could not know what he had done, and yet the knowledge was plain across their faces. The sun was setting behind Tayo as he walked between them. It cast a shadow far in front of his feet.

The Ponto had changed him, that was certain. He had claimed the power of Ikana and it had awoken within him some new life. But he was still himself, perhaps more himself than ever before.

He carried the two Pontos without shame. There were some scattered whispers as he passed, but mostly there were austere, horrified silences. Molan would not meet his eyes, but what of it? Tayo had no further need of the healer’s guidance.

He walked the silent gauntlet of his people. As he passed, the line dissolved into a crowd following in his footsteps. He walked decisively into the heart of the village and approached the great hall. All that remained of the structure was a stone chest in a circle of ash. The Ponto had not been burned. You could not destroy the power of the gods.

Tayo lay his emptied weapons atop the chest and turned to face Auda. The leader of the Maru wore a look of sorrow, of anger and hunger.

What have you done, Tayo?” Her voice was curious and deep.

The Kana are gone,” was all Tayo could say. The memory was vague and dreamlike. Had it been him firing the arrows or another? The sky had been blue, that much he remembered. The vast, empty, silent sky.

What are these…?” Auda asked hesitantly.

They are the power of Ikana,” Tayo replied, meeting her eyes. “They are mine.”

They are Ponto,” Auda said in confirmation. There was no reproach in the words, just the desire to understand.

They are Ponto.” Tayo nodded.

It is as I said.” A spindly man broke out of the crowd. “He brought death upon the village. And as they died he set their huts to the torch. There is nothing of the Kana left but ash.” He waved his arms before him as he spoke.

The man must be a scout, a watcher.

Auda gave Tayo a measured nod. “And after?” She raised an eyebrow.

After?” Tayo squinted.

Where have you been?” she asked.

I have only just returned.” Tayo shook his head in confusion.

It has been a week, Tayo. The Kana attack, your…” Auda said.

A week?” Tayo’s eyes widened. His mind raced. “It was hours ago. The Kana raid was this morning.”

Seven days,” Auda asserted.

Tayo’s face contorted. “It is true then. I am…changed.” It was not a sad statement, just a fact. He knew what such a statement would mean, the sentence his crime would require. But he found he did not wish to die. Why should it be so?

Tayo turned slowly, his body rippled with untold power.

I have claimed the Ponto.” He bellowed to the crowd of Maru before him. “With it I have healed the fracture of this world. The Kana are gone!”

Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Some pointed fingers and some raised their voices. An old man with a healer’s satchel wept quietly. A short-haired woman raised her arms to the sky.

Silence!” Auda bellowed and the crowd stilled.

She turned to Tayo, her eyes darting and wide. She unsheathed the great sword of the Maru and considered its weight. She considered the unpainted man standing before her.

With a small frown, she set the blade at Tayo’s feet and embraced him. Cheers broke out in the crowd, but also cries of anger and disbelief.

Oh Tayo,” Auda spoke so only he could hear. “What a burden you have claimed.” The words broke something inside Tayo and a sob wracked his body. His legs gave out and Auda guided him gently to the ground.

The crowd splintered under the reignition of a previous argument. Angry words turned to threats and drawn blades. A group of Maru swarmed around Tayo in protection. They stood shoulder to shoulder around their former leader and their new leader weeping in her arms.

Tayo watched between the legs of his protectors as people fled the village. They abandoned their homes and their green paint but took with them their knives and their anger. They filed out of the western gate. The setting sun painted their arms and faces with bright orange streaks.

Tayo’s defenders peeled away and returned to their homes and the comforting repetition of their lives. Auda gathered the three Pontos and shepherded them somewhere safe. Tayo sat alone in the ash and mud and listened to the soft whispers. The song was the sound of the sun setting only to rise again. It was the sound of water defying its nature to evaporate into the air.

A woman watched him from the shadows some twenty feet away. Her eyes pierced the darkening night. A black sun at her neck reflected the dying embers of light. Her unbound hair flowed around her neck.

Bare feet indented the muddy earth as she approached. The sun glinted and gleamed upon her chest. The dying light reflected countless colors. Tayo’s hand went to his own neck but found nothing there. The woman lifted a hand and brushed Tayo’s cheek with her fingers. Tayo reached his hand to her hair. She leaned in and kissed him on the forehead. She was warmth and welcome and familiarity.

He knew her! He knew himself! He remembered the darkness and a thousand choices across a thousand generations, always so completely and disastrously wrong. He remembered the enduring struggle and the incorrigible, unjustifiable hope. He reached for his partner in sudden desperation. He ached for the color in her eyes. He needed to feel the stillness of her breath and the forgiveness of her embrace.

But she faded before him, becoming less real, less solid. His flailing arms found only emptiness.

We will try again,” he whispered to her and she smiled sadly back at him.

She was gone and he stood alone to face the blanketing blackness.

Always," he said.

Again. Always again.”




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