Desert Song: A Girl In Exile, a Trickster Horse, and the Women Rising Up
is now available through our Community Publishing Campaign.
. . . . .
The Ancestor Wind
by Rivera Sun
The Ancestor Wind played across the mountains. It leapt the peaks and tickled the bellies of the valleys. It was the breath of the world, from a newborn’s first gasp to an elder’s last sigh. The Ancestor Wind filled the lungs of the living and lifted the weightless souls from the old husks of their bodies. Carried by the wind, the spirits of the ancestors roamed across the sky that stretched endlessly above the desert. Unseen, they slid on the soft hiss of the breeze into villages to whisper advice in the ears of their descendants. They howled warnings in the edges of storms. They slipped into dreams and guided the fates of the people.
The Ancestor Wind carried the spirits like an invisible, unruly horse leaping for the sheer joy of motion, diving for the thrill of plummeting, laughing for the delight of existing. The wind knocked the treetops dizzy and tried – in vain – to topple the eternal stones. It ran unseen fingers through long pine needles and chuckled over craggy boulders clinging to steep slopes. It dove through the pass and skidded to an astonished halt.
A hundred . . . a thousand . . . two thousand . . . three thousand or more people marched steadily along the worn dirt road. The scent of the distant riverlands clung to them, but their features marked them as sons and daughters of the desert. The wind swirled in delighted recognition: the water workers were returning at last.
For too many years, the Ancestor Wind had watched these people leave, sorrow riding their backs as they sold their labor to their enemies in exchange for the precious water needed by their families in the desert. Just weeks ago, the river that once trickled in miserly grumbles had suddenly swelled into full-bodied laughter. Set free from the dam in the riverlands of Mariana, water surged into the dry fields of the desert. In the silt-laden mouth of the mountain pass, astonished farmers sang to welcome the water’s return before channeling it into irrigation ditches. The spring would burst green this year, lifting that sacred color across the valleys and plains.
Delighted at the return of all things living and green, the Ancestor Wind sprang aloft, charging toward the high white plumes of the towering clouds, dancing in the realm of light and air. Then it dove back down to the people who walked in a long snake through the Middle Pass. The wind rippled gleefully and wound through their heads and shoulders, purring like a cat.
“The Ancestor Wind comes to greet us!” a man cried.
A cheer rose at the words of Tahkan Shirar, the man the Marianans called the Desert King. In his own people’s eyes, he was not a king; he was their Harrak-Mettahl, their honor-keeper, a role the Marianans had no words to describe. Tahkan Shirar was craggy, like the mountains; bronzed by sun and experience. His grey-green eyes shone like twin springs in the dry lines of his weathered face. His comment echoed through the long line of walkers, bringing tears to eyes and smiles to faces. Heads lifted. Hearts surged in chests. Three thousand people raised their fingers to the wind to catch its blessing. The scent of heat and bitter herbs flooded their nostrils. Memories of their beloved desert swelled in their hearts as the wind touched their heads in benediction. It rippled the copper hair of a young girl and paused.
This one was different.
The scent of water and distant lands clung to her, along with hints of a childhood in the shadows of the massive trees on the High Mountain slopes. The girl was formed by rain, moss, dark pines, and black stones. The Ancestor Wind studied her. She must be the one the black hawk had spoken about, the girl raised by the Fanten women, but not a Fanten; trained among warriors, but not a warrior; child of the river queen, but not accepted as their royal heir; daughter of the desert who had never seen the sands; the one whose name meant not this, not that, but everything possible in between: Ari Ara de Marin en Shirar, the Lost Heir to Two Thrones.
A mass of copper curls flung out wildly from her head. Wiry muscles ran tight to bones. The girl was strongly built, lean rather than willowy. At twelve-and-a-half, her features had the look of stretched canvas. It was the mark of growth. Caught between ages, Ari Ara still laughed with her child’s honest peal of delight, but also tripped over feet that had grown longer than her experience. When she thought no one was watching, her blue-grey eyes tracked the motions of the older girls, surveying the terrain she would soon trek across.
The Ancestor Wind saw all of this in a swift sweep of scrutiny. Before the girl’s curls had settled from its ruffling touch, the wind moved on to her companions. A riverlands warrior with night-dark hair chatted companionably with the youngest sister of the Desert King. She had been gone six long years. The scents of fog and moss clung to the dry iron of her desert blood. Beside her walked an old warrior. The wind swirled in surprise. Years ago, this scarred, grey-haired man had come to these lands bearing peace and love. Years later, he returned, heralding war and death. Now, Shulen walked beside Tahkan Shirar like a friend. The desert dwellers smiled at him, welcoming him instead of fighting him, celebrating him instead of fearing him.
Confused, the wind swept up to the high crosscurrents to ask the messenger hawks for news. While the wind raced the clouds, it carried the tidings to the mountains peaks: the Desert King was returning with his people and his daughter . . . and he brought the water and an old enemy with him.
Further west along the snake-bends of the pass, a woman built of rage and muscle, bitterness and blood, tilted her head to the wind. Strands of auburn-dark hair whipped her cheeks and clung to the hard facets of Moragh Shirar’s face. The wind whispered its secrets in her ear: water, her sister, her brother the Desert King, her long-lost niece . . . and him, the enemy.
Her lips pulled back from her teeth in a snarl. Under her, a roan horse stilled, hide rippling with tension, preparing for the battle cry he sensed building in the storm of the woman’s fury.
Shulen the Butcher had returned, the man whose heart was hard enough to bash in heads, whose very skin protected him like stone armor, whose hands were stained with the blood of her people . . . including her beloved’s.
She would die before she let his feet touch her lands. Let others sing his praises for finding her brother’s daughter. That did not excuse him from losing her in the first place. Let fools forgive and forget how he had led the War of Retribution, charging into battles based on lies. The death of his wife and child along with the riverlands queen was no excuse for the murder of her people.
Moragh Shirar wheeled her horse in the direction of the wind’s whispers. She was a taut arrow of sinew and strength, green eyes narrowed under her mane of hair, muscles clenched with long-held hate, throat roughened with battle cries. When she rode, the warrior women followed, leather tunics supple and tough, skin weathered by the elements, lives armed with ferocity and courage. These were the Black Ravens, sisters cloaked in mourning black, harbingers of war, talon and beak ready for vengeance, the emblem of two wings emblazoned on their backs.
Moragh and her riders galloped onward. Shulen the Butcher would pay for his crimes.
Above them, the ravens wheeled. Their caws sent a shiver through the wind.