Henki

by Ronald D. Ferguson

Amid twilight shadows spreading from the nearby pine forest, the baby coalesces on the lowest step leading into the house of Tieto, the clan Isa. Naked to the elements, the newly incarnated child shivers at the promise of freezing temperatures in the approaching night.
 
Clattering inside the house suggests that his target, Tieto, hurries about some task. Is there an emergency? The baby considers making a noise, a cry, to attract the Isa's attention, but already the chill saps his strength. He assumed most Vanhem Pi children were born when autumn approached winter. Perhaps he has miscalculated, mistimed his effort.
 
The door opens. Tieto ducks through with a sword in each hand. With amazing agility, the powerful Vanhem Pi warrior swears, stutter-steps, and skips over the child.
 
"What's this!" Tieto exclaims. "A newborn?"
 
Tieto's head crest unfurls to fan air past the rusty colored olfactory nodes dotting his head. Muscles tensed for action, the clan Isa leans closer. His rusty-blue countenance hovers inches from the baby, but the child expresses no fright. Tieto extends a hand and then pauses.
 
Touch me. The baby wiggles his cold-numbed limbs. Touch me.
 
"A male?" Tieto straightens and examines his surroundings as if he expects a trap. Finding none, the clan Isa smiles through wickedly sharp teeth. "I have urgent duties and will be away for at least two days. Be gone when I return."
 
The warrior departs into the darkening forest. Heavy with the scent of pine, the cold night settles with numbing efficiency onto the child.
 
The baby gurgles disappointment and ceases its struggle so that the freezing temperatures will work more efficiently. Freezing doesn't hurt as much as starving, and the baby doesn't want to prolong its death.
 
* * *
 
The fresh baby wiggles for attention when the Vanhem Pi woman opens the door to let the spring sunshine into Tieto's house. She leans her broom against the door jamb and flaps her apron as if she wishes to exchange the stale air in the house for the morning. Rather than a rusty, blue-tinged face like Tieto's, her skin is pale green with soft spots of brown. Except for the olfactory bumps, her head is smooth. No hair or head crest encumber her. She stops scattering house dust into the outdoors when the baby cries. The woman applies her fists to her hips as if something unexpected crawled from beneath a stone.
 
"Tieto," she calls into the house without taking her eyes from the child. "You have a baby on your porch."
 
"Again?" Tieto comes to the door and leans against the jamb.
 
Overshadowing the woman, the Vanhem Pi warrior is almost twice her height. He wears a bloody bandage on his left hand that suggests something recently tore off his fingers.
 
"Where is the mother?" The woman steps onto the porch because the Isa's shoulders leave no room for her in the doorway when he pushes through. She looks about. "I recall no ripe pregnancies in the village."
 
"There is no mother," Tieto says with obvious irritation that his rigid face cannot express.
 
"What woman abandons her baby on a stranger's doorstep?" The woman wipes her hands on her apron and reaches for the child.
 
"Do not touch it, Parandaja." Tieto grabs her arm. "This abomination is no Vanhem Pi baby. Look at its face. Empty, and it has no scent. The same apparition visited me before."
 
"It's a newborn. How could you have seen it before this morning?"
 
"I've seen it four times, Beloved Sister. The first three times, I left it on the steps, and it died from exposure. Each time, I buried the body in the forest. The fourth time, I threw the living baby into the river in hopes that the current would carry it too far away to return."
 
"You are our Isa, the clan father. I cannot believe you would treat any child in that manner."
 
"This is no child."
 
"Four previous visits? Three deaths. Now it returns." Her voice softens. She puts a hand on his arm. "Are you saying this is a spirit rather than a baby?"
 
"I'm saying that it is persistent and not Vanhem Pi."
 
"When did the Vanhem Pi ever willingly turn away any mother and child, no matter how peculiar?"
 
"There is no mother, and I do not accept this as a child. Look carefully. The eyes watch us, but have no color in them. Its expression is blank. It seems incomplete."
 
"Perhaps all it needs is a family. What else is our clan but an open family?"
 
"You see that it is a male."
 
"I'm not blind, but how should we throw away any baby?"
 
Parandaja starts for the child, but Tieto grabs her arm.
 
"Perhaps I've grown too wary from years of war, Second Sister. My suspicions shame me. Let me take the child as penance and as a precaution."
 
The baby gurgles when Tieto picks him up. This is what the child wants. When the clan Isa touches the baby's face, the child tastes the sweet flush of Vanhem Pi's DNA. He decodes the structural sequence and feeds it into the temporary matrix, the generic framework waiting to structure him a new body. Yes, everything fits. Finishing the construction, the baby submits to the constraints of the code. Within the week, the instructions will complete the missing internal parts of the body, and his outer shell will transition to become a true Vanhem Pi.
 
He relaxes, yielding to the demands of the species, and submerges his former lives into his subconscious. He prepares to live a complete life cycle as a Vanhem Pi warrior. The final preparation is to store all memories of previous lives beyond his own access.
 
"Shall I give the baby to one of your wives?" Parandaja asks.
 
"When I said I will take the child, I meant that I will raise this child myself."
 
"What nonsense," Parandaja says. "Children are a woman's job. Someone must nurse it, and that won't be you. Besides there is your hand, and the clan Isa has no time—"
 
"The fingers will regrow. Find a couple of wet nurses. For all else, I do not trust such a peculiar baby to anyone but myself. However, his persistence arouses my curiosity. "
 
"What will you call him?"
 
"Henki. How else would you name a spirit?"
 
* * *
 
When Henki is four, Dwaas and her mother Sopka come to the clan from far beyond the escarpment waterfall. They fled the Piktas that overran their settlement in the low plains. Their clan's dispersal drove them to the mountains to seek security.
 
Parandaja lets the woman and daughter acclimate in the village of Mesto for three days before she introduces them to Tieto. Even so, Sopka holds her daughter close and stands far from the Isa warrior after they enter the house.
 
Shyly peeking from behind Tieto's favorite chair, Henki watches. He knows all the children of the village, but the girl Dwaas is new… and somehow different.
 
"Do you wish to join our clan?" Tieto asks. "Or will you seek a new family elsewhere?"
 
Sopka examines the tall warrior as if evaluating his prowess. Finally, she speaks.
 
"You are younger than most Isa and very strong. If you accept us, I will be pleased to join your family and call you Isa, clan father."
 
Tieto glances at Parandaja for confirmation.
 
Parandaja nods. "All the women of the clan have rubbed cheeks with them both."
 
Allowing her daughter to retreat towards the door, Sopka holds very still when Tieto approaches her. The Isa bends low and touches his cheek to hers, first on one side, then the other. She inhales sharply and shivers. His crest unfurls and sharpens to a deep blue while the olfactory buds on his head darken from the increased blood flow.
 
Henki wonders what the Isa smells.
 
"We have no close common ancestors," Sopka says.
 
"Yes, I smell that," Tieto says. "Very good. New blood to vitalize the clan. Are you willing to call me husband as well as Isa?"
 
"Of course." Sopka's eyes sparkle as if she has won a prize. "When shall I come to you?"
 
"No hurry, you already have a child," Tieto says. "We can become better acquainted tonight, but I do not want you pregnant before your daughter reaches her Teismeline. In the meanwhile, Parandaja will help you find a cottage. We have a few unused houses that require small repairs. Pick one. Are you skilled in any craft?"
 
"I'm a good baker. I also weave."
 
"We have a baker with two more in training, but our weaver grows weary. You will work with her until we can get you your own loom. When you have time, visit the baker to exchange techniques."
 
Parandaja whispers to Tieto, and the warrior glances at Dwaas, who waits at the threshold. Undisturbed by any swell of the hips or nascent breast buds, the girl's tan dress drapes loosely on her childish figure. Her face is plain and ordinary. How old is she? Ten or eleven? Still a child. Yet, Tieto intently examines her. Henki wonders whether his father sees beyond the strangeness that Henki can only feel.
 
"How long until you daughter's Teismeline?" Tieto asks.
 
"At least a year, maybe two." Concern creeps into Sopka's voice. "She will not be ready to become a wife for several years after."
 
Tieto gives Sopka a withering glance. "I will ignore that insult because you are new to our clan."
 
"I don't trust my senses on this." Parandaja leads the girl to Tieto.
 
Tieto's stiff face does not allow him to frown, but his mouth straightens and his eyes narrow. He does not lean to touch his cheek to the girl's, rather he pulls back when she approaches.
 
"Am I wrong?" Parandaja asks. "Perhaps it is simply the stress of the dispersal and the journey here."
 
"No. I smell it." Tieto fidgets and steps away. "Still early, but I smell it even through the mask of our village scent, and it's not a remnant from their previous clan. You could be right about stress as the cause, but keep the child away from me until we know for sure."
 
"I smell nothing." Sopka wraps a protective arm about her daughter's shoulder. "What's wrong?"
 
"I barely detected it," Parandaja says. "Tieto is more sensitive to such things. We simply aren't sure."
 
"What's wrong with my daughter?" Sopka demands.
 
"Well," Parandaja says as if she comforts someone ill. "That's not easy to—"
 
"Tobu," Tieto says gruffly. "The scent of the second Teismeline is on her."
 
"What? No! She's far too young." Sopka gasps and pulls her daughter close. "I won't let you kill her."
 
"That should not be necessary," Parandaja says. "Besides, we could be wrong."
 
Henki crawls behind the table next to Tieto's chair so that he can see Dwass better. He studies her face. The girl looks more confused than terrified. What is wrong with her? What is so different, so dangerous that Tieto threatens to exclude her from the clan? The girl returns Henki's stare as if she recognizes another outcast.
 
"Parandaja is very good with hormone treatments." Tieto retreats to his favorite chair and slouches into it. "If the imbalance is due to stress, her herbs should control it. If the worst happens, we can send the child for training with my father, Tovenaar."
 
"Your father lives?" Sopka asks.
 
Henki is puzzled. He never heard Tovenaar mentioned before, but why shouldn't Tieto's father be alive?
 
Tieto's crest wavers and collapses atop his head. "We are not savages here, to kill our own family like Piktas do. I did not murder my father to take his place. He collects wisdom and lives as a hermit in the high mountains east of here. Aged beyond the blood rage, my father pursues a life of quiet study. He can train Dwaas. If she turns tobu, we will send her to Tovenaar so that she might learn to survive without a clan. Believe me, if she turns tobu, she will fare no better with any other clan. That is my judgment. If you find it acceptable, then I will meet with you tonight after supper. Otherwise, accept our hospitality until such time as you are prepared to leave."
 
The dismissal is obvious, and Sopka leads her daughter from the house.
 
"More concerned for her child than any shame over tobu," Parandaja says. "I believe she will be a good wife. If she stays, you will have more wives in the clan than blood sisters, but we cannot depend on dispersals alone to provide you with wives. If you have the strength to increase our number, we should exchange your sisters with another clan to get you more wives and give your sisters the chance for children. I can negotiate the exchanges on my next trading trip."
 
"We've discussed this before," Tieto says.
 
"Yes we have, but now you've established yourself as a powerful warrior, an exceptional Isa. You have the luxury to increase our clan… that is, if you have the stamina."
 
"You're a wise woman, Parandaja. When I have not the strength to engage more wives, it will be time for the clan to bring forth a new Isa."
 
Six months later, Tieto exiles Dwaas into the mountains to learn survival from Tieto's father. When Henki asks why Dwaas had to leave, Tieto hugs him.
 
"Fate decrees such things, Henki. If Dwaas had stayed with us too long, I would have been forced to…" Tieto pauses and searches Henki's eyes. He sighs. "A leader makes hard choices. This is a lesson you will learn when you are older."
 
Without the responsibility of a child to raise, Sopka visits Tieto often and soon becomes pregnant with her second child. Although she always treats Tieto with warmth, she avoids Henki as if he were the one responsible for the exile of Dwaas.
 
* * *
 
Stripped to the waist and covered with sweat, Tieto lays aside his steel swords and drapes an arm over Henki's shoulder. At nine years old, Henki is taller than all the girls his age. Most women in the clan are no taller than he is, but standing his straightest, he comes only chest high to Tieto.
 
For years, Henki watched Tieto practice daily with swords and knife. He knows that the Piktas regularly test the Isa's defense, usually once in the spring and again before the first frost in the fall, for they were too unimaginative to vary their routine. Moreover, the unorganized barbarians can seldom assemble a war band larger than a dozen fighters to invade through the mountain pass.
 
When Tieto grows bored with practicing martial arts, he climbs to the narrows of the mountain pass in hopes of surprising enemy stragglers. Unless the Piktas flee, none of these isolated fighters can survive an encounter with an Isa warrior in his prime. Piktas have no discipline, stragglers are common, and most are too dumb to run away. Tieto is at the peak of his prowess, and he loves to fight so that isolated Piktas do not live long enough to be a threat to the clan in the village of Mesto.
 
Because Henki wants to emulate his father, he pesters Tieto about teaching him martial arts. The Isa resists until at age six, Henki follows him to the practice field and using sticks for swords, imitates Tieto's every move. Henki is very good at imitation, and so sincere in his efforts that he soon has Tieto laughing. From that day forward, every time Tieto practices, Henki gathers his wooden swords and imitates Tieto's movements. The shared practice becomes part of their routine. Often, Teito applaudes Henki's efforts or offers suggestions to improve his technique; other times he beams with pride. Today, he smiles with satisfaction.
 
"How did I do, Father?" Henki squints against the morning sun. With summer underway, the day is already hot. "I think I'm getting better with my left hand sword thrust."
 
"Yes, Henki, but keep both swords working, the sword for thrusting, the scimitar for cutting. You should immediately follow the sword thrust with a full rotation and slice the enemy with the scimitar in your right hand. Use continuous motion. Do not pout. These lessons are not criticisms. I've never seen anyone your age better with swords. However, most of the girls are far more accurate with a bow and arrow."
 
"Bows are for women," Henki says smugly, proud of his nine-year-old prowess. "Warriors use swords."
 
"When I was younger, before I became Isa, I was quite good with a bow. Practice improves your eye, helps your coordination with other weapons, and keeps the enemy at a distance."
 
"Really?"
 
"Really."
 
"But I don't like practicing with the older girls. They talk about silly stuff. Someone is always bragging about their Teismeline party. You would think that growing from a girl into a woman was some great event."
 
"It's a momentous occasion." Tieto frowns and steps back. He holds Henki by the shoulders at arm length. "Life is change. However much we wish to hold onto the day, tomorrow dawns on us all. Eventually—"
 
"I am at the age of Teismeline." Henki stretches on tiptoe to increase his height. "Soon, I will be an adult. I will be a warrior."
 
Teito's crest unfurls. He examines Henki's face. "For now, you are my child. For now, that must be enough."
 
"Will you get me my own bow?"
 
"Yes." Tieto sighs and turns away. "You're not strong enough to draw mine. You can practice in the forest where stray arrows are unlikely to cause harm. I'll teach you, but only if you promise to shoot fifty arrows at the target every day… is that the alarm?"
 
"I hear two bells."
 
"So do I. The Piktas must be coming in force up the escarpment trail from the west. I would rather meet them in the narrows of the eastern mountain pass. Quickly, go to Parandaja. Tell her to have three archers meet me at the waterfall. She will tell you what you are to do in case we must disperse."
 
"Can't I go with you, Father?"
 
"Absolutely not. Do as you are told." Tieto kneels and clasps Henki's shoulders. "Gather your dispersal kit like we rehearsed and find Parandaja at the riverbank in Mesto. Remember that Piktas cannot swim. If the signal comes to cross the river, then I have failed, and the clan must disperse. Someone else will care for you then."
 
Tieto does not wait to see whether Henki obeys. The warrior grabs his swords and races out the door to meet the enemy.
 
Piktas. The enemy.
 
Henki runs to door and yells after Tieto. "You won't fail. You are Tieto, my father."
 
But already the warrior is down the path to the river, and he vanishes into the forest with a speed that astonishes Henki. Henki is tempted to follow Tieto, but he has to take the message to Parandaja about the archers. When he reaches the river bank in Mesto, he finds Parandaja supervising eight women loading the escape rafts. The entire village is awake from the alarm and busy with preparations.
 
"Grandmother…"
 
Like all Vanhem Pi children, Henki calls any woman Grandmother who is past childbearing age and is not his parent.
 
"Henki." Parandaja keeps her eyes on the rafts and her hands on her hips. "You have a message from Tieto?"
 
"He wants three archers to meet him at the waterfalls. I've never been to the waterfalls."
 
"You're no archer, and now is not a good time to go. You will stay near the raft but out of the way. I know you can swim the river if need be. If the alarm bells sound again, the rafts will cross the river and all of our clan with it. Join the children and swim with them. Someone on the other side will tell you what to do after you get across."
 
"Can't I stay with you, Grandmother?" Henki measures the width of the rushing river: possibly fifty to sixty body lengths to the far side.
 
"No. Once I've armed myself and two of my sisters, we will support Tieto downstream at the waterfalls. Do as I say. Wait here with the other children. Eat lunch when they serve it, you'll need strength."
 
Parandaja hurries away without waiting for Henki's response.
 
Other children! Pah! Emotion swells within him. Henki is a warrior, no longer a child. The desire to fight surges within him, overpowers his fear, and leaves him confused.
 
Still, he is pleased that he didn't actually lie to Parandaja because he has no intention of waiting with the children when there is a two-bell battle to fight. They need every warrior to defend the village, and Henki never felt more like a warrior. Summoned or not, he will fight beside Teito.
 
However, lunch sounds good. Maybe he has time to grab a snack before following Parandaja to the waterfall.
 
* * *
 
Although the three women carry weapons and are not as fast as Tieto, they quickly outdistance Henki on the trail to the waterfalls. How far downstream to the waterfalls? Four miles west, maybe five, he guesses. After he loses sight of the women, Henki stops to rest several times along the way. Strange, he usually does not become so easily exhausted.
 
The trail through the dense pines is well traveled, so that Henki does not worry that he will get lost in the forest. If the path disappears, he will simply keep the river to his right, follow it downstream, and eventually, he will reach the waterfalls. Going back to Mesto will be just as easy by keeping the river on his left.
 
What does worry him is that the women, including Parandaja, so easily outdistanced him. Perhaps he needs to spend more time running.
 
Henki slows long before he reaches the escarpment after he realizes that the increasing roar comes from water leaving the plateau and crashing into the valley below. While he creeps closer to the sound, the noise of battle joins the thunder of falling water. Distracted, he wanders off the trail and must climb a tree to get his bearings.
 
After he is twenty feet above ground, light flashes almost blind him. The afternoon sun glistens off the river where it plunges over the escarpment edge. The rising mist from the falls quickly dissipates under the heat of the summer sun. He shades his eyes and looks to the clearing at the left of the waterfalls.
 
At the escarpment edge, Parandaja and two other women fire arrows down onto the pathway that leads up the escarpment. Near them, Tieto blocks the pathway egress onto the plateau. Wearing only his leather loin cloth, he stands like a bulwark against the invaders. Sweat and blood cover his torso. He holds two swords at ready.
 
From his vantage point, Henki sees down the pathway to the first switchback some fifty yards below Tieto. A jumble of bloody bodies, pin-cushioned with arrows, litter the path. More bodies, clearly victims of Tieto's swords, cluster near the Isa warrior.
 
"They've fallen back," Tieto shouts at the women. He kicks a dying Piktas over the edge of the escarpment and draggs two more of the bodies to the precipice to clear the area about him.
 
The women nod and step away from the edge of the escarpment. They immediately start reorganizing their remaining arrows. Pointing down the path, Parandaja approaches Tieto. She says something to the Isa warrior, but he shakes his head and points to his ears to indicate he can't hear her.
 
"I count fifteen dead," she shouts and throws him a cloth. "That's more than we normally see in a raid."
 
Tieto nods and towels the sweat and blood from the hilts of his swords.
 
Henki focuses on their lips. Despite the noise from the waterfall, he understands what they say when he sees their lips move.
 
"They had five scouts holding the top of the trail when I arrived," Tieto says. "After I killed them, I cast their bodies over the escarpment. That raises the death toll to twenty."
 
"Who was on watch?" Parandaja asks. "Your first matri-daughter, Taito?"
 
"No. Taito watches the mountain passage today. Hofnar's daughter watched here—I've forgotten the girl's name."
 
"Elsnar. Where is she?"
 
"Dead. But she relayed the warning and wounded one of the scouts before they caught her. Be sure that she is remembered at the next assembly."
 
Parandaja turns her face away and says something that Henki misses.
 
"As many as fifty more might wait below," Tieto says. "This is the biggest challenge since I became Isa. Fortunately, the path is difficult to climb and too narrow for them to attack two abreast."
 
"Surely, they will give up now that we have archers to support you."
 
"They are incredibly stupid." Tieto smiles. "Look down the path. Already they creep forward and gather below the switchback."
 
Henki raises himself to the next limb, but he cannot see beyond the switchback.
 
Parandaja signals the two women to prepare for the next assault and offers water to Tieto. The Isa quickly drinks and then casts aside the cup. Parandaja returns to her companions.
 
For a moment, Henki tenses when Tieto stares at his tree. When the warrior turns his attention to the pathway, Henki relaxes.
 
Tieto straightens, flexes both arms, and tilts his head from side to side. His crest unfolds to collect more scents. Like a raptor, he glides to the top of the pathway and assumes a defensive posture with tightly clutched swords.
 
Henki knows his father will allow no Piktas to pass.
 
The angry shouts from the Piktas echo and harmonize with the thunder from the waterfalls. Arrows from the women strike, and the enemy at the forefront fall. Those who follow shove their wounded comrades from the path into the abyss. The three women cannot fire arrows fast enough to stop the charge.
 
For the first time, Henki gets a clear view of a Piktas, upright and enraged. Wearing only a loin cloth, each stands no taller than Henki, but all of them hulk over with massive arms and shoulders. Wiry, unkempt hair grows so thick on their chests and arms that they appear to be covered with a reddish fur. Their wild hair extends down their necks and back like a massive mane. They are dirty, unkempt and oblivious to anything except killing and dying. Most of them wield a bronze knife or stone ax, but a few are unarmed and gnash their teeth as if they prefer to bite.
 
At the last moment before the Piktas reach Tieto, he becomes a blur of motion. Henki knows that the Isa is fast, but the warrior becomes a whirlwind to scatter the enemy like chaff. His sword hacks and plunges. His scimitar slices away arms and heads. So many enemy fall that Tieto must retreat several steps to clear his feet of the tangle.
 
The barricade of bodies slow the Piktas, and once more arrows churn into the mass of enemy warriors attempting to pass their dead comrades. Some climb to the top of the pile of bodies and launch themselves at Tieto, only to be cut down by his blades. Others attempt to scale the steep escarpment side to avoid Tieto and reach the archers.
 
Too many Piktas. Too many. Henki scampers down the tree. His father needs help.
 
Henki is half-way across the clearing when he remembers that his wooden sword isn't likely to do much damage. He scoops up a large rock to throw at a Piktas who somehow climbed the face of the escarpment behind Tieto. Parandaja shouts a warning, and the Isa warrior spins and slashes the invader in half.
 
Another Piktas reaches over the precipice and grabs Parandaja's leg. She falls, dropping her bow and arrow. The Piktas slips down the escarpment face and drags the woman to the edge. Henki runs to the precipice, grabs at Parandaja's leg, and pounds the Piktas arm with a rock. The beast will not release its grip. However, the delay is enough for Parandaja to sit up with an arrow in hand. She plunges the point into the creature's wrist. Screaming, the Piktas releases its hold and tumbles down, dislodging rocks onto his companions on the trail below so that three of the creatures fall into the valley.
 
The smell of the Piktas blood feels strangely familiar to Henki.
 
Henki's vision clouds, and he remembers running with his brethren through a high mountain pass.
 
In the narrows ahead, a mighty Vanhem Pi warrior slashed and cut. Blood splashed everywhere. His brothers' blood. Henki sprang to kill the Isa warrior. At the last moment, the warrior's steel sliced through Henki's neck. Henki's eyes glazed holding the sight of his dead brethren strewn about the feet of the warrior. An ancient voice pushed aside Henki's fading rage and commented on the defiant warrior, 'Here now is a species worthy of study.' With the strange detachment of his approaching death, Henki recognized the Isa warrior as Tieto.
 
Henki returns to himself when Parandaja shakes him.
 
"What are you doing here, Henki?" Parandaja gasps through short breaths.
 
"I came to help Father."
 
"Get him away from me," Tieto yells.
 
When Henki turns to his father, it is as if an alien spirit has taken over the Vanhem Pi warrior. The Isa's eyes are filled with rage. He seems oblivious to the Piktas who cling to his legs and stab at his waist. Tieto's complexion flushes from blue to crimson. Dragging the enemy behind him, he raises his swords and steps towards Henki.
 
"Blood rage." Parandaja scrambles to her feet and grabs Henki's arm. "Run, child, before all is lost."
 
"I want to—"
 
She forcefully drags him along. "Run, if you want to live."
 
Parandaja does not stop until the roar of the waterfalls and the din of battle fades. When she releases Henki's arm, he rubs it. She has a stronger grip than he thought possible for a woman. Before he can speak she spins him about and grips both his shoulders.
 
"You disobeyed me," Parandaja says. "More importantly, you disobeyed the clan Isa. Stupid. Your stupidity may cost your father his life. Even more may die because of you, and without an Isa, the remnants of our clan will be forced to disperse."
 
"I wanted to—"
 
"Shut up. I must return to help Tieto. Go back to the village and wait. Do not disobey me again. If you return to the battlefield, I will put an arrow through you myself."
 
* * *
 
Tieto defeats the Piktas, but is seriously mauled in his efforts. Despite the victory, something feels broken in Henki's chest.
 
Henki watches from a distance when Parandaja and an archer help Tieto limp home. When Henki attempts to follow them to the Isa's house, a young woman grabs him. Henki recognizes her, but he has not seen her for two years. She is Taito, first daughter of Teito, and she has grown into an impressive young woman as tall as Henki.
 
"You must stay far from him," Taito says. "Come with me."
 
Reluctantly, Henki follows her. "Is Father angry?"
 
"Not because he wants to be, but you haven't helped."
 
They walk to Mesto without speaking. On the village outskirts, Taito directs him to a modest cottage a short distance from the river.
 
"This is where I live." Taito leads him through the door. "You will stay with me until we resolve this mess."
 
"I only wanted to help," Henki says.
 
"I understand. Bread and cheese in the cupboard. Please do not leave the cottage; some of the women are very angry. Sopka speaks against you to all the mothers. Stay here while I get my baby."
 
"Baby?"
 
"Why else would I have visited another clan for the last two years? I sought out another Isa to father my baby. Tieto is the clan Isa, the clan father. He is also my beloved parent, and as such, he cannot be the true father for my child. My baby will call him Isa, clan father, but not true father. You're a mystery to me, Henki. How can you know so little of us, and yet pretend to be one of us?"
 
She is out the door before he can answer.
 
What did she mean that he pretends to be a Vanhem Pi? His father is the clan Isa. His mother is… Why do all the children in the clan have a mother except him? A pale memory rises from within him. He recalls waiting to be discovered on the steps of Tieto's house. What other Vanhem Pi can remember what happened to them as a baby?
 
He has difficulty breathing. He pours a cup of water from a pitcher. He holds the cup with both hands when he drinks because his hands shake.
 
When Taito returns, she nurses a cooing bundle at her breast. She takes a chair to let the baby finish its meal.
 
Henki turns his head from mother and daughter. "Why does Sopka hate me?"
 
"Because of Dwaas." Taito covers her breast and rocks the baby. "Tieto exiled Dwaas, but he allowed you to stay."
 
"I don't understand," Henki says, but he has a suspicion. How had he known that Taito's child was a girl?
 
"Don't you? Well, I suppose I don't really understand the Piktas, or the Karys, or many of the other species who share this world with us." She places the sleeping baby in a cradle and approaches Henki. "A clan may only have one Isa."
 
"I understand that."
 
"Do you." She grabs his shoulders and rubs her cheeks against each side of his face. "Yes, you smell exactly like Tieto. I cannot tell you apart. Perhaps that helped him endure you this long. One Isa means only one male in the clan."
 
Henki steps back. The scent of the woman lingers on his face. He feels his nascent head crest unfurl to refine the scent. He recognizes her as a close relative, unavailable for mating. Mating? He rubbed cheeks with many women, and the thought of mating never came to him before. What does it mean?
 
An image seeps from the back of his mind. Mating. Reproduction. After maturing, most animals use a strategy of sexual reproduction. Henki hesitates. Is he maturing? When a Vanhem Pi girl reaches Teismeline, that is the turning point in her sexual maturity.
 
"I'm different."
 
Henki does not realize he has spoken aloud until Taito responds.
 
"You are naïve. Your differences are many. How could you not know that?"
 
"Is this my Teismeline? Am I becoming an adult?"
 
"I have no idea." Taito laughs. "None of us do. You are the only male Vanhem Pi child we have ever seen. You are unique."
 
Mistake. A voice deep from within expresses regret. A terrible mistake from the beginning, a mistake that cannot be undone. Still, here is a chance to learn. Henki reviews what he knows.
 
All the children in the village of Mesto are girls. There are no male children. The only adult male Henki has ever seen is Tieto, Isa of the clan. Examining the possibilities while he stands outside himself, Henki sorts through his experiences as a Vanhem Pi with unfamiliar precision. He feels as if he is himself and simultaneously a distant observer.
 
"What is the Teismeline?" he asks Taito.
 
"Teismeline marks the first changes from a girl to a woman. We usually celebrate with a party and gift the girl with a dress made for a woman."
 
"That I knew. And is there a Teismeline for a…" Henki struggled for a moment before he realized that the Vanhem Pi language included no special word for boy or son. "…for a male child approaching manhood?"
 
"The Vanhem Pi have no male children. None."
 
"Except for me."
 
"Yes."
 
"Then where does the Isa come from?"
 
"The second Teismeline. When the clan needs a new Isa, then one of the women in the clan undergoes the second Teismeline. Usually, she is the eldest child of the previous Isa."
 
"Like you?"
 
"Like me, except I'm too young, and I have the responsibility of a child. Once my child is of age, then the task falls to me. If we lose Tieto to his wounds now, then some other woman must assume the burden. Whoever it is will make the sacrifice and undergo the second Teismeline. She will grow into a male warrior within a few months, and then he will become the clan father and the defender of the family."
 
* * *
 
A week later, Parandaja comes for Henki after sunset.
 
"Tieto wants to see you, but you must approach him carefully."
 
Henki follows her from the cottage although his legs feel weak and he has trouble walking. He had felt ill since the Piktas attack.
 
"How is he?" Henki asks once they are on the moonlit path to Teito's house.
 
"He's doing well," Parandaja says. "Despite some serious puncture wounds, he didn't lose consciousness, and he has wonderful control in stopping the blood flow. Herbs kept away the fever. He lost all of this right hand, but already a bud has formed, and I think it will grow back within a month."
 
Henki is grateful that she pauses when the house comes into view.
 
"Do I get to see him?" His chest tightens, and he takes several deep breaths.
 
"First I'm going to dust you with herbs." She produces a pouch from her dress pocket and sprinkles the contents over him. "I will go inside the house and leave the door open. Stay on the porch. Do not come inside. Run if I shout to you."
 
"I cannot outrun Tieto."
 
"No, you can't." She finishes with the powder and straightens his shirt. "If you don't want to try this, you can go into the mountains with Tovenaar."
 
"Like Dwaas? What was wrong with Dwaas?"
 
"Tobu. Sometimes when a girl reaches Teismeline, things go wrong with her hormones. She changes, but not into a woman. She early matures into a male."
 
"Like an Isa."
 
"No. Not like an Isa. Those unlucky few who become male at the first Teismeline do not develop the size or strength of an Isa. They are no threat to the dominance of the Isa."
 
"I don't understand."
 
"Blood rage. The scent of another male drives an Isa into blood rage. No reason remains in an Isa filled with blood rage. His only goal is to kill the other male. When I visit another clan, I must spend several days touching cheeks with the women of the clan before I can meet with the clan Isa. Otherwise, Tieto's scent on me would drive the clan leader mad with blood rage and he would kill me. Tieto sent Dwaas away because he did not want to kill him. When the change is complete, then the hormones in Dwaas will lessen, and he will be able to visit the village."
 
Nausea overcomes Henki. "Will Tieto send me away?" He struggles not to vomit.
 
"He has no choice," Parandaja says. "He loves you, but he has no other choice. If you are afraid to see him this last time, I will explain to him."
 
A cool voice at the back of Henki's mind reminds him that living a complete life with integrity demands no specified time frame, only a commitment from start to finish.
 
"I'm ready." He tries to straighten but his shoulders ache and lack strength.
 
Leaving Henki at the foot of the steps, Panadaja enters the house.
 
Henki's knee gives way, and he sits on the stairs.
 
Interesting. The distant voice in his head becomes a narrator of events. Dissolution of critical chemical bonds under the approach of puberty. Unexpected. Substantially different than maturing among the Piktas or Karys. Manipulating chemistry to simulate emotion no longer evokes a response.
 
Except for content, Henki cannot distinguish the internal monolog from his thoughts as a Vanhem Pi.
 
"Henki."
 
Tieto's voice commands his attention, and Henki pushes the narration to the back of his mind. He tries to rise. The pain is unbearable, and instead, he swivels to face the warrior.
 
"Yes, Father."
 
"Stay where you are," Tieto says. "Come no closer. Taito tells me the Karys word for a male offspring is 'boy,' and that a parent calls his male child 'son.' Although you are not a true Vanhem Pi, you are my son, and I don't want to send you away. However, the scent of your maturation overcomes my senses. If not for Parandaja's herbs, I would have killed you already."
 
"It's all right, Father. You won't have to send me away. I'm dying."
 
"What?" Tieto steps forward and then grabs the door jamb to hold himself back. "Why?"
 
"I'm not sure. Probably because I forced a male structure on a baby intended to be female. I should have studied your clan longer before I made the attempt to participate." Henki loses vision in his left eye. "My mistake. The DNA has its own goals. Those goals conflict with what I created. This body can no longer sustain itself."
 
"I don't understand what you said. I want to understand."
 
"I have no better explanation. I've hidden most of this from myself because I always try to live as authentic a life as possible. Now…" Henki slips from the steps onto the grass. The subconscious narrator announces that the pain will fade with the life.
 
Parandaja blocks Tieto from approaching the dying boy. When he nods that he is in control, she comes down the steps to Henki and lifts his head.
 
"I am sorry if I caused any harm," Henki says. "Usually, no one detects me. In the past, those that discovered me always killed me. Goodbye, Grandmother. Goodbye, Father."
 
Parandaja clasps him close. Before Henki abandons the dying body, he twists his head for one last look at the clan Isa. A tear rolls down Tieto's check.
 
Henki loosens the last constraints on the collapsing body and reintegrates his personality into a single consciousness that drifts away. Immediately, he strives to assess this latest life, but the last vision of the Isa warrior distracts him.
 
Curious. I never saw Tieto cry before. Perhaps there is more here to learn. Someday, I'll return.
 
Return? That in itself is a new idea, a new concept for Henki. The Vanhem Pi call the concept home.


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