Chapter One

The early-afternoon spring air filled her nostrils with the scent of new life, the aroma of smoking meat from homes that ran the perimeter of the Wood, and the hint of great waters farther out.  She wasn’t supposed to be here.  Wmíisan sent her out after mid-day to dig a few of the medicinal roots growing on the great flat expanse bordering the Wood.  The woman handed her a blade that was thick and heavy–perfect for digging–and shooed her away.  Síipuw disliked the snarl-faced elder, but Wmíisan was the only medicine women in their great tribe who agreed to take her on as an apprentice.

“Your grandmother taught you much that is wrong, little one,” Wmíisan told her that first day through tight lips.  “I shall have to spend much of your first years just correcting that before we can begin.”

“Whatever you think is best, elder,” Síipuw said with her head bowed.  She had to keep her head down, or the woman would see her face red and hot with anger.  Such disrespect brought beatings, and that was no way to begin her lessons.

It was just as well the pukwudgie showed up today when it did, as Síipuw had begun hacking at the root in frustration, rendering it useless.

Distracted, she stepped on a large fallen branch, the cracking of the wood loud enough to stop the birdsong around her.  The pukwudgie stopped as well, the glowing air around it pulsing in a series of colors from yellow to red.  Síipuw froze, afraid to move.  After anxious seconds, the little creature made a small squeak of derision, then as the glow settled back to its usual pale blue, it continued its journey.  Síipuw let out a silent breath of gratitude, and followed.  Carefully this time.

Fourteen springs passed since her birth–since the day Mother died–so she was well-taught in woodcraft.  Her small feet never failed to find the silent path, and her slim frame allowed her to slip easily among the trees.  Her long raven-black hair was tied back with a leather strap, and then tucked into the shirt she wore to keep it from snagging on branches.  No one would take her for a boy, but she was every bit as good as one while in the Wood.  Father, having no sons, taught her to stalk and hunt from the day she could walk.  Lately she was filling out in awkward places, and that made it harder for her when she hunted.  Father spent less and less time with her, and she often wondered if those two events were connected.  After Grandmother died, he apprenticed Síipuw as soon as the ancient woman was in the ground, and all her things were moved into the little room in the back of Wmíisan’s home.  No one else would take her.

The pukwudgie stopped at the entrance to a small clearing.  Síipuw couldn’t see beyond the opening, but the pixie seemed to be waiting, so she carefully stepped up to look through.  The clearing was as near as she could tell to a perfect circle, the width of two canoes laid end to end, and covered with a smooth white stone for a floor.  The white was marred by a series of strange markings around the outer edge–almost pictures–that she didn’t recognize.  She came to this place many times while hunting, but there was never a clearing before.  Also, there was never a naked boy here before, either.

She averted her eyes at the thought, and her cheeks flushed.  The little person floating beside her pulsated blue and white, which she knew was amusement.  Sometimes they did that just before they played a trick on you, but this time she knew it was laughing at her.  Fine, she thought, I guess I’ll have to look.

Turning back to look through squinted eyes, she saw the boy who lay in the middle of that circle of stone was covered after all.  Almost a second skin, it was so tight, with only his hands, head, and feet poking through.  The coloring was what caused her initial confusion.  It was the color of flesh, but the contrast between that and the pale color of the boy’s skin now made it obvious.  There were many other differences as well–a hawk-like nose, with full lips and a square chin beneath.  His dark hair was short, but didn’t have the same look as her father’s hair did after a burning.  There was also a hint of coarse hair on his strong jaw.

While she stood considering him from the edge of the circle, his eyes fluttered open.  Síipuw gasped and stumbled back into the foliage as the boy sat up and rubbed his head.  He stood and looked around, noticing the pukwudgie first.  A full head taller than Síipuw, with broad shoulders and arms almost as thick as Father’s, he still looked like a child as he tilted his head in wonder at the floating pixie.  His eyes shifted to the right and he saw Síipuw for the first time.  It was his turn to stumble back, and he held his hands in front palms up as he spoke excitedly.  The words meant nothing to Síipuw, but he kept pointing as he gibbered, and she looked down to see the knife she held in her hands.  Her eyes widened, and she held the blade up to show him, and then carefully placed it back in its sheath at her hip.

“I will not hurt you,” she said soothingly, her hands again in front of her.  “The pukwudgie brought me to you.”  She nodded at the pixie.

The boy seemed to relax then, but neither did he move toward her, nor seem to understand her words.  His words, when he spoke, were strange guttural sounds.  Harsh and short with no meaning that she could find.  The pukwudgie seemed to understand him, though, and waggled in the way they used to suggest negation.

Síipuw looked into the boys eyes–I have never seen eyes of such color!  Blue like the pixie’s glow–and shook her head “no.”  That he understood, and his shoulders slumped while his chin dropped to his chest.

“I do not know what you asked, but I am sorry,” she said softly.  “I wish I could help you.”

The boy looked around as she spoked, and then up through the ring of trees surrounding the clearing to the giant structures beyond, and his mouth opened wide.  He pointed and gibbered some more.  He acted as if he had never seen such things before.  But that couldn’t be, she thought.  Those were older than Grandmother.  Her people discovered one hunting season that this end of the great river changed, with giant stone and ice blocks reaching to the clouds where once had been only trees.  Between these places, then as now, was a smooth and hard ground running straight and true as far as the eye could see.   This, when Grandmother’s Grandmother was but a young girl.  After exploring and finding them empty, the tribe took residence in the great structures surrounding the Dark Wood.  To the north, many of these places had entire sides cut from top to bottom–sheared off cleanly by the Yakwawiak with their giant blades.  That was also the time when the Great Goddess appeared to her people, standing across the water to the south.  She stood there now, but couldn’t be seen from this place.

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