WALKS IN STARDUST
Lynn Armistead McKee
WALKS IN STARDUST
All Rights Reserved © 1994 by Lynn Armistead McKee
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.
Published by Stone Creek Books
Originally published by Diamond Books
Cover art by Joe Moore
For the ones who fill up my memories
Very special thanks to the Broward County Archaeological Society and the Graves Museum of Archaeology and Natural History.
As always, I owe so much to the Thursday night group that stripped the “taffy” out.
Also, gratitude to Nancy O’Leary, my friend.
Strength and courage can sometimes be lonely friends—but those who reach, walk in Stardust.
The cinders of the fire darted about, flickering red lights, like fireflies suddenly brought to life by the stirring of a stick.
“Move back, little one,” Tamar, the big man, said, slowly shifting his stiff leg out from under him. Hidden beneath his thinning skin still resided the muscles he had developed in his youth. But deep within, his old bones protested that he sat in the same position too long, especially on such a cold evening. He winced with discomfort as he moved the leg, helping it with his hands.
The small girl looked at him with respect and adoration, drawing her stick out of the fire.
“Come and sit with me,” Sola said, patting the ground between her and Tamar.
The child dropped her stick, and a puff of dust spewed up as it hit the earth.
Restrained in a net of wrinkles, Sola’s black eyes reflected the flames of the fire, and it was clear she held the lessons of age. “Never mind them,” she said to the child, flashing her wise eyes at a gossipy woman across the way. “Pay no mind to their babbling. It is just prattle.”
The girl crawled up to sit between the old man and woman, feeling the rampart of their bodies shield her from malicious chatter. Still, some eyes in the dark glared at her, made her pull up tighter against Tamar and Sola, shrink into the comfort of their shadows.
Her small fingers played with the feathers and shells that dangled from Tamar’s arm band. The shells tinkled as she fingered the different strands, making them clink together to a song she hummed.
“One day you will teach me the words to your song,” Sola said, stroking the back of the child’s head.
The girl’s face lit up with a smile. The old woman slid her arm around the child and cradled her against her shoulder, gently rocking. Wisps of clouds drifted across the icy moon, and a quick breeze made the people bundle up in their skin robes and fur blankets.
“Look!” a young man screeched. The villagers squinted over their fires, looking into the sky.
“Ayee!” they cried, seeing the streak of golden light.
Tamar stood and lifted the girl, pointing to the sky. “There, little one. Do you see?”
All of the villagers had gotten to their feet, mouths agape, in wonder of the brilliant light that lit the heavens. But in a moment, one by one, they began to fall to their knees in prayer.
“It is coming.”
Tamar remained standing, whispering into the child’s ear. “It is a hearthstone from the fires in the sky. The spirits’ fire. It comes this way.”
The girl’s eyes widened. She could feel Tamar’s arms tense with pride as he held her, and his chest swelled. He was not afraid like the others, and so neither would she be.
“They send it to us,” he whispered to her, as if she were the only one who could understand.
Rapidly the fireball came upon them, streamers of colored light trailing behind it. There was a loud noise, an explosion, and the people covered their ears, crying for the spirits to spare them, to save them.
Tamar lowered the girl to the ground as the people looked up again to see a shower of golden lights sprinkle down from the sky.
“Wait!” Sola called as the child ran toward it. Tamar held out his arm, blocking the woman from going after her.
“Let her go into the stardust.”
Everyone watched, and a hush fell over the village as the child vanished into the shadows of the night.
Finally, emerging from the stillness of the deep night, the child reappeared and walked back to the fire. In her hands she carried a slender oblong object. The people stared, edging closer to get a better look.
“From the heavens,” the child said, holding out the still-warm, sharp sliver of the hearthstone that had come from the sky.
Tamar took it from her and examined it. He uttered sounds of deep contemplation. He had never seen anything like this before. The stone was not a rock, as he knew rock.
But of course it would not be ordinary. It was from the fire of the spirits.
“The child has brought us a piece of the stars,” Tamar said.
“Yes,” a woman from the back of the crowd agreed, bowing her head in reverence.
“From out of the golden light,” another said.
Tamar backed the girl against his leg, facing her toward the crowd, his hand resting on her shoulder. “The spirits smile on her, and she is one of us.” His heart was full. The spirits had answered his prayers, and in such a grand way. There was no doubt now that she was as much his child as if she had come from his seed.
The child looked up at the big man, putting her hand on top of his as it so firmly sat upon her shoulder. “It is good?” she asked.
Tamar lowered to one knee. “It is very good,” he said, her innocence bringing the faintest smile to his lips.
The girl’s arms went around him, and her little eyes filled with tears.
Again Tamar stood to face the crowd, lifting the child so that all could look upon her face and the object she had given to them. “Behold, a gift from the spirits!”
He let the child down to the ground and took her by the hand. “Come,” he said, leading her into the crowd. “They wish to touch you.”
As she passed, nervous, anxious fingers stroked her arm, touched her face, traced lines down her legs. They walked through the crowd, filling the need of the People. The vision of them, moving in the shadows and the firelight, captivated the villagers, causing some to hold their breath while others began to cry.
Sola stood in the distance, her arms around her middle, overwhelmed with happiness. She watched them until they faded into the darkness of the trees.
High in a cypress the feathers of a white bird captured the silver light of the moon. Tamar and the child stopped beneath the tree, and he mumbled a prayer. The child watched as another white bird came out of the night and perched beside the first. Tamar’s prayers became louder, a song she had never heard him sing before.
Sola came and stood at the edge of the woods searching for their silhouettes. Strange, she thought, they had just been there, beneath the tall tree, and now she saw nothing but the black of night. Suddenly she heard the fluttering of wings. The sound made her look to the sky. Rising out of the shadow of the cypress to soar in the moonlight, two graceful white birds glided above the treetops and over the village.
She was running, heaving for air, her lungs on fire, her muscles cramping with exhaustion. The shallow water splashed in her face as she stumbled and went down, the peat gushing beneath her knees and oozing between her fingers. Quickly she drew herself up and froze, the hammer of her heart battering her temples. She looked in every direction as a jolt of fear swept through her. Horrified and engulfed by the shock, she suddenly was aware that she did not know who she was, why or where she was running, from or to what. She remembered the last few steps, the fall into the water, but the time before that was a blank. Her mind was empty, as if the spirits had dropped her here in the midst of the saw-grass prairie, grabbed her in the middle of a nightmare, and abandoned her with no warning and no explanation. A chill ran down her spine.
The woman felt terror course through her as again she turned, looked deep into the distance, and whimpered. A storm was brewing, the dark belly of the clouds protruding, bloating with rain. Her breath exploded from her, and her heart beat heavily in her chest. She had been running hard, fiercely. Why? She held still, listening, watching for some clue.
As far as she could see in all directions stretched the shallow water and the tall saw grass that whipped in the wind as the storm approached. Thunder rumbled, and the first raindrops fell on her face.
The woman spotted a small hammock close by and trudged through the water, keeping low, hiding in the toothed sedge, feeling it tear at her moss skirt and slit fine shallow, stinging cuts on her body. Finally she collapsed on the island. The rain fell harder, driven in sheets by the wind. She clawed at the mud, scrambling on her hands and knees, and crawled farther under the canopy of trees. She peered out, scouring the rim of the island, watching for someone or something. She still made noises when she breathed, wheezing from exertion and fright. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
Who was out there? What was coming after her? Why?
She wiped away the raindrops from her face, realizing for the first time that she clutched something in her hand. Again she brushed the water from her eyes, and then focused on the object she held. It was a knife, its handle fire-polished and intricately carved from bone. She knew the designs had been made with the tip of a shark’s tooth, but who had made them? She didn’t even know if it belonged to her. And the blade—what peculiar substance was it made from?
The woman tried to catch her breath, shielding her eyes from the rain that made its way through the lush foliage. She rubbed her thumb up and down the sharp blade, then the handle, feeling the tiny ridges and grooves as she looked closer. The edge of the blade was so sharp and thin she thought it would break away if she pinched it. After a quick attempt, she was astounded by the strength of the material.
The knife handle was long with carved turtle-effigy wedges securing the blade through the ferrule and into the handle. At the tip of the handle was another turtle. Along the length of the carved bone were hatch marks and lines as well as a series of dots and swirls. Beautiful and elaborate.
Her attention suddenly turned to her chest. A stream of pink rainwater streamed down the crevice between her breasts. She put the knife under her arm, scooted to an opening in the trees, cupped her hands, and held them out to catch the rain. From the pool that formed in her hands, she saw that the rain was clear. She looked down. Several small pink rivulets flowed down her chest. Pink water streaked her arms and trickled from her chin. The rain dripped from her hair into her eyes. Her fingers raked the side of her head in an attempt to sweep back her long black hair. She found her hair hard, stiff, and matted. She withdrew her hand and held it in front of her. Her palm and fingers were red. Blood! Her hair was soaked in blood! The knife fell to the ground.
She ran her fingers over her head, feeling for the wound. But there was no soreness anywhere, no lump, no gash. Lightning lit the sky, and the thunder cracked. Again she felt her head; there had to be a wound somewhere.
She found nothing—no cuts, no gashes, not even any scrapes, no reason for the blood.
She stood and inspected her body, touching, probing, looking. She made noises, sounds of panic as she examined herself, small gasps, noisy exhalations, hysterical whimpers. Her fingers searched her body—nothing but the small cuts from the teeth of the saw grass.
The blood had to have come from someone else. The knife. She lifted it and examined it, but it had been washed clean. She had fallen with it in the water, and there was the rain. If the knife had been covered with blood, it was all rinsed away.
The woman peeked out across the stormy saw-grass prairie, looking for some hint, some indication that would tell her what had happened. She heard the lashing of the saw-grass blades and the rumble of the thunder, but there was nothing to see—nothing but the fury of a summer thunderstorm.
Was it morning or late in the day?
A loud crack behind her made her turn. The wind had ripped a limb from a bay tree. It dangled and swung, twisted, then was wrenched from the tree, falling free. Afraid of the weather and what might be pursuing her, she moved deeper into the cover of trees, into a thicket of tall weeds and thin saplings. She curled over her knees as she huddled close to the muck and waited out the storm, quaking from the wet chill and the terror.
Finally the lightning became infrequent, the thunder distant, and the rain a drizzle. She wanted to creep out of the heavy brush. The mosquitoes were worse here, and the weeds scratched her. But she was too afraid to move out of the cover. Who was after her? What still might be coming for her?
She hunkered low, feeling jumpy, her eyes wide. The squawking and tweeting of the birds slowly returned. The hammock quickly soaked up the moisture, and the steaming, musty scent of the layers of rotting leaves, the heavy odor of the muck, wafted in the air. Mud streaked her face and body, and a few brown leaves and small brittle twigs were caught in the tangle of her hair.
A sudden flurry of birds taking flight from the trees made her start and leap to her feet. When she realized what had frightened her, she expelled a cry and held her forehead in her hand, unsure if she was really laughing or crying.
Why couldn’t she remember?
She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them, shook her head, and pressed her hands to her temples. The blade of the knife lay flat against her cheek.
Whose blood was in her hair?
The woman anxiously awaited sunrise. She had slept on and off through the night. Each time she awoke, the trauma of realizing she was actually living a nightmare jolted her into heedful, rousing wakefulness. After the last time, she had not been able to go back to sleep. Sunrise could not be too far away.
Before nightfall, she had managed to cut and pile some soft ferns to use as a bed. Exhausted, she had at first found the bed suitable, but as the night wore on, she didn’t like the feeling of being so exposed and unprotected. The moonless night had come upon her quickly, and even the shadows were lost in the blackness.
She felt relief with the return of the sun. The woman sat up and scratched the welts that covered her body. The mosquitoes had found her an easy target. The mud with which she had coated her body had not been much help.
The sunlight that sprinkled through the trees made her eyes burn. She rubbed them and vowed never again to spend another night as she had the last night. Never again would she leave herself so vulnerable. The time for crying like a child was over. Now she had to survive—had to fend for herself.
She wondered where all this determination came from. Was that what she was like … determined? Did others see the same thing in her? Did they see her as determined, or did they think she was uncompromising?
The thought brought on a chain of questions. She remembered the blood in her hair, and her stomach coiled. Had she lost her temper with someone? Who was she?
“My name,” she said aloud. “My name.” Desperately she attempted to sift through her mind, trying to hook on to some clue.
She tried again, but the effort went unrewarded. She slammed her fists down, making a low thud as they struck the ground through the shield fern cushion. She rummaged through the ferns searching for the knife until her fingertips finally felt the blade, then the handle.
She lifted the knife and held it against her chest. It was her only link to her past. Gently she let her fingers caress the handle. She felt the ridges of the finely crafted carvings. The knife grew warm in her hand, a pleasant, comforting warmth. She dared not lose this. This was no ordinary knife.
With the yellow morning light coming like splinters through the trees, she made her way to the edge of the mound, picking berries and eating them along the way. The caked mud cracked on her body as she moved. The woman wrinkled her nose and stretched her mouth open, feeling the mud fissure. At the water’s edge, she washed her face, and then splashed handfuls of water down her arms, trunk, and legs.
She pulled some nut grass and chewed it, the sweet grass making her mouth feel refreshed.
How selective her memory loss was, she thought. How did she know to coat herself with mud if she had no fish oil, and what about the nut grass? How did she even know how to wash? How did she know that the berries she ate were not poison? Why had not everything except knowing how to breathe been snatched away at the same time as the rest of her memory? The heat of anger flushed her face and burned in her stomach.
What other things could she remember? The small white flowers growing in patches beside her were good for abrasions. She picked one, pulverized it, and then rubbed the pulp on her skinned shin.
She looked across the watery land. The sun begins its journey in the east and ends it in the west. Another fragment of information that her mind had held on to. It seemed she could remember everything—everything except her life.
Her hands trembled as she held them over her face and bowed her head into them. “I do not understand.” she shrieked.
She sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her free hand. Her jaw tightened as she looked behind her into the small hammock that was her new home.
Well, she thought, if she was to keep the promise to herself that she would never spend another night as she had last night, there were things she needed to do.
She turned back to the water and scooped some up in her cupped hands. Just as she lifted it to her face, she let it spill out, recoiling at what she saw.
In the distance were canoes. Many of them. Moving silently.
The woman crouched, picked up her knife, and backed into the trees. She waited and watched as the canoes came closer; she studied them and the men in them.
Had they come to save her?
When they were near enough for her to see detail, she knew she would be in danger if she stayed where she was.
Were these her people coming for her, or were they her enemy?
Behind her, farther into the forest of the hammock, was a large strangler fig. Quickly she ran to it and climbed up, hoping to get a better look.
She thought the canoes were going to pass the hammock, but then a voice rang out, and suddenly the canoes took a deliberate turn toward the end of the tree island.
Her heart raced, and her hands grew cold and sweaty.
Who were they?
As they came closer and closer, she watched the men, scrutinizing their clothing, tattoos, and ornaments as they approached. The tribe these men belonged to should have been apparent. Even the style of their canoes should have told her who they were. But she didn’t recognize them. There was nothing familiar about them; even their stature was curious to her. Was this part of her memory loss, or did she really have no knowledge of this tribe?
The men poled two of the canoes up to the island at the southern tip, banked them, and came ashore while the others waited quietly in their dugouts. She shifted on the branch to see better, craning her neck as if it could make up the distance.
She dropped the knife, and the shock of her mistake sent a sensation like fire channeling down her arms. The knife had tumbled from her hands, plummeting to the ground and impaling itself straight up like a stake to mark her presence. The noise she made when she gasped was so loud she was sure they heard. She looked at the advancing men and then back at the knife, wondering if she had time to climb down, retrieve it, and again scale the tree. No, she decided. Better that she remain still and hope the knife would be overlooked.
The woman realized she had bitten into her lip when she tasted the salty blood. Afraid to breathe, she watched the men move into the cover of the hammock.
They appeared to be looking for something, and they were being careful not to make any noise. They moved like seasoned, masterful hunters, executing every step with adeptness, knowing the earth and how to blend with it. Yet the woman was certain they were not on the hunt. They spread out, skulking in a near dead hush. The fan of warriors edged closer, the sleek brown bodies slinking through the brush, never alarming so much as a bird.
In the tree, huddled against the trunk, the woman was so alert, her senses so sharpened by fear, that she could smell them.
One man noiselessly stole closer to her. She cringed at the sight of him, a fish bone through a perforation in his nose. He was near enough that she could see his heart beat heavily in his chest and beads of sweat roll down his forehead. She looked at the knife below, its ornate handle protruding like a death marker. Surely he would see it.
There was a low rumble of fear in her ears, like thunder far in the distance. For an instant she was dizzy. She wrapped her arms around the trunk of the tree and pressed her cheek against it. Her mouth was dry, and she was unable to swallow. An icy chill flooded her hands and feet until she was sure they were numb. Her teeth scored her sliced lip as the man stopped and looked around after stepping on and snapping a twig.
In response to his mistake, the warrior dropped to a squat and hunkered low. With fluid expertise he nocked an arrow and drew back the sinew string, clearing the bark protector around his arm before his thumb rested under his jaw. His eyes smoothly searched the area, the tension of the bowstring straining the practiced muscles of his arm.
The woman watched in dread, certain that she would give away her position with the pounding of her heart or the sound of her breathing.
Finally he stood again, keeping his arrow ready for flight until he was certain there was no threat. He lowered the bow, but kept the arrow nocked, waited a moment longer, then turned around and trod back toward the canoes.
She clung to the tree, watching all the men return to the dugouts as stealthily as they had come. They pushed off, met the other canoes, and continued on their journey.
The woman leaned her head back and closed her eyes in relief. If the twig had not cracked under his foot, surely he would have discovered the knife and then her. She silently watched them move away. She climbed to a higher branch to see the canoes finally fade into the distance.
A sudden twisted thought changed the expression on her face. What if she had hidden herself from rescue? Were those men her people, come to save her? There was no way of knowing, and she realized that this questioning would not lead her anywhere except to more tears. There were already too many questions that she couldn’t answer.
She climbed higher until she could see across the whole island. She needed to know this hammock, its length and breadth, its position in the trail of islands that blotched the otherwise bleak saw grass. The top of the tree was less sturdy and swayed with her weight, persuading her to climb down.
She pulled the knife out of the ground and decided that she needed a sheath for it so she could strap it around her waist. For that she needed to hunt, to kill an animal that would give her its skin and sinew. But she had no weapons.
Except the knife.
She pulled off the leaves that had been skewered onto the knife blade when it stuck into the ground. The tip was so sharp. What if she could learn to use this knife the way the men used a lance? Perhaps it could serve as the point of the lance. She would think more about the possibilities.
And what about a shelter? Something to conceal her from the nocturnal animals and the weather, a place to return to each night, a place to fashion baskets and tools. The sun would not provide enough daylight in one day for all the things she needed to do.
By afternoon she had built herself a lean-to deep within the hammock. She knew that a place in the sunlight would have been drier and more pleasant than this spot beneath the heavy canopy of trees, but exposure on the edge of the island was too great a risk. The warriors might return, or others might travel past. Even if they intended to pass the island, they would be attracted by the shelter. She decided she was wiser to settle for perpetual dampness.
The lodging was simple, something she could break apart and scatter if someone came. She hoisted a long ridgepole onto the top of a stump and then braced branches against that, forming a framework. She covered that with thicker, smaller boughs, then deposited rubble in front of the entrance so she could seal herself in at night. There was room inside for her to sleep comfortably, and a little room for dry storage. The sides were dense enough to prevent rain from easily passing through, and, she thought with trepidation, if she was still here when winter came, the shelter would help insulate her from the cold air and wind. Spending the winter here was something she had to consider, since she could not tell how much of the warm season was left. Winter might be only one sleep away.
Building the shelter took all morning—searching for a stump in an acceptable place, gathering the branches. Her hands were cut and sticky with sap, and every muscle ached. But she kept on. Then, after a brief rest and a meal of berries, other fruit, and stalks, she made a fire drill. She sacrificed the thin strip of sinew that was the waistband of her skirt to make the bow. She collected the down from thistles and cattails for tinder that would quickly spark into flame.
As she sat ready to start her fire, she felt herself stiffen and heard the rustle of birds’ wings. A sudden image flashed in front of her. She saw the large hand of a man wrapped around the end of a bow drill like the one she had made. The hand was moving the bow back and forth, and smoke was streaming from the notch in the fire board. Her eyes were wide and watching, as if the event were taking place now, but then the vision disappeared as suddenly as it had come, leaving her staring at the barren, gently sloping fire pit she had sculpted out of the earth.
Desperately she tried to hang on to the thread of memory. She threw down the cattails and thistles in frustration and reached for her temples. Buried inside her head were the memories, the things that made her the woman she was. She took a deep breath and realized that the image was gone and she could not recover it.
In a moment she returned to her tasks. Twilight would be upon her soon. She piled small dry kindling twigs and the larger wood, wrist-sized in diameter, that would maintain the fire.
As the first evening star glittered in the sky, she blew on the small coal she had created. She nested it in some cattail and thistle fluff, gently blowing on it until it flamed, nurturing the small ember, adding to it very slowly so she wouldn’t smother it.
When the fire was complete, she sat back on her heels in admiration. Using the right wood, finding the correct tension of the cord so that it did not ride up or down on the spindle of the fire drill, bracing her arm so that she held the spindle straight—all those things she had learned during the afternoon, repeating or altering her efforts over and over until at last she was rewarded with a fire.
Either firemaking had been stricken from her memory, or she had never built one before. Obviously she knew the technique, but the experience had been sorely missing.
She felt great satisfaction as she watched the flames dance in the dark. By its light she ate from the pile of plant food she had gathered. Then she fumbled with the knife and a long stick.
The woman held the stick beneath her eye and looked down the shaft. This was the straightest one she had found. She rested the middle of the stick in the palm of her hand, checking for balance.
The end of the stick was blunt where she had cut it off. She made a slit in the end of the stick to slide the knife handle inside. After inserting the handle she attempted to bind it. The grapevines did not hold tightly enough, and the knife wobbled. Tomorrow she would remove the sinew from the bow drill and securely bind the knife to the stick.
The flames of the fire danced, holding her spellbound, and her mind slipped back. Suddenly the blaze appeared larger and more frightening, and the sound of screaming made her scramble to her feet. She blinked as if awakening from a dream. There was nothing but her small fire in front of her—the haunting call of an owl and the singing of the crickets. Another small flash of a memory had come to her. A sliver of her past had managed to pierce the black cloud that held everything else back.
The time had come to stop working for the day. She must sleep, she thought, succumbing to exhaustion.
The woman added hardwood to the fire, knowing it would slowly burn down to coals during the night. Satisfied that the fire was fed well enough, she sat still, humming the tune of a song. She wished she could recall the words or remember where she had learned them.
When the melody ended, she prepared for sleep. Earlier she had brought water in her mouth back to her camp and spit it out onto a pile of leaves. She had done this several times so that the leaves were damp even now. She spread a light covering of them over the fire, creating instant smoke that drove away the mosquitoes. The fresh mud covering on her body, the smoke, and the shelter would help protect her during the night.
The sky glittered with the stars. So many of them, she thought. How many spirits and ancestors sat by their fires in the sky just as she sat by hers?
The woman crawled into her lodging and filled in the entrance with the debris. The fern bed was cool and soft against her naked body. Instantly her eyes closed, but the noises of the night made her anxious. The footfalls of waddling raccoons and opossums, the croaking of the frogs, the bellow of an alligator, echoed in the night. She recognized them all, but still they troubled her and kept her from sleep. Surely she had heard these same sounds every night of her life; they frightened her now only because she was alone, confused.
And did not know who she was.
It was not the season she had hoped it would be. As many days passed, they grew shorter. The nights grew cooler, not nearly as stifling and humid as they had been. The booming of afternoon thunderstorms ceased.
The woman pulled a skin blanket about her shoulders as she sat next to the fire in the chilly evening. She had not bothered to fashion a new skirt. She thanked the spirits they had shown her how to use the knife to hunt, to provide for herself. The skill had not been easy to master, but endless practice made her successful.
Every night before sleeping she cut a small gash in the stick she kept to record the passing of each day. Tonight she took the knife from the sheath at her side and notched her stick with a long slash to mark the full moon, then stared at the cuts in the wood. Too many long slashes, too many cycles of the moon, she thought. She feared that she would spend the rest of her life on this hammock, alone, without ever remembering anything about herself.
Tonight, like every night, she strained to see the few points of stars that peeked in and out of the rustling treetops of the woodland. She called to the spirits in prayer, thanking them for providing yet another day for her. But tonight she felt so empty, so abandoned. Did the spirits not see her here?
Near the shelter she had dug a hole and lined it with a grass-woven mat. Inside the hole she stored her belongings: a few clay pots she had made, skins from animals stuffed in baskets, pouches, sinew, fire-making tools, and antler. She covered the hole with broad Sabal palm branches and other leaves so that it could not be seen. She had learned to sleep on the ground without a mat, lying only on a few ferns. If the enemy came, she would scatter the components of her simple lodge, extinguish the small fire, cover it, and hope that it might go unnoticed.
Next to the fire was an otter stomach of water to douse the fire in an emergency. She had the procedure planned so that it would take only a moment, and then she would hide in the forest. The only thing she would carry with her was the knife.
Tonight she pulled the deerskin wrap snugly about her shoulders, guarding against the cold. Myths told that long ago the People believed the cold air was the breath of a giant beast that lived to the north. She wondered what it might be like farther north, in the land from which her ancestors had followed the legendary creatures with curling tusks. They had followed those giants here to the land of the water. And how her imagination spun when she thought of the stories of those beasts that lived alongside her ancestors, beasts that stood three or four times higher than a man, beasts whose steps made the earth tremble, animals whose flesh could feed a whole clan for days and days.
How peculiar, she thought. She could remember tales of her ancestors and descriptions of animals she had never seen, but she could not recall her name. She let out a sigh. Perhaps it didn’t matter if she took all these precautions—secret holes, water to put the fire out. No one was coming for her—not the enemy, not her people. She didn’t matter to anyone, so why should she matter to herself? She was no one.
At first light she began her daily routine. She stirred the coals of the fire and fed it, then took care of her personal needs.
The hammock’s shrubs and vines no longer provided fruit. There remained nuts, stalks and tubers, leaves and stems. She had dried some fruit, but because storage space was limited, so was her supply. Another reason she had stored so little was that she had started gathering provisions late in the season, so certain was she that she would regain her memory any day, or that someone would come for her. When she realized she might be here a long time, the fruiting season had nearly ended. She also stored dried meat, which she continued to save for emergencies.
The days passed, one so much like the last that she often found herself ready for a short sleep in the afternoon. At first she had been busy with the tasks of learning to live here and take care of herself. She had learned to hunt with the knife. Becoming skillful with it had kept her occupied for a long time. Finally she could bring down a moving target with ease—rabbit, raccoon, even deer. Now there was nothing new, only the day-to-day chore of subsistence.
Tiny flashes of memory continued to come to her, but nothing that she could make sense of or hang on to. Such visions only teased and tormented her, reminded her of how much she had lost. Her treks to the water to bathe became less frequent, and her appetite dwindled. She picked at her food, hunting less, eating less, spending more time lying inside the shelter. Her life was as empty as her memory.
This night she crawled into her lean-to and did not bother to put away the bowl she had eaten from. She left the secret storage hole uncovered. If someone came in the night, let him find her and take her life, she thought as she curled up to sleep.
She had a dream, one that she had had before. When she waked from it, all she could remember was the stirring of the wind and how it blew gently on her face, and then looking up to see a beautiful white bird so close the feathers touched her. She turned over and opened her eyes, staring in the darkness. She liked the dream. In the dream she felt safe and content. Finally she closed her eyes again and slipped into a dreamless sleep.
No one did come in the night. No one came to rescue her. No one came to kill her and end her misery.
As the morning light twinkled through the leaves, the woman turned on her earthen bed. Unlike all other mornings since she had been here, she did not crawl out of the shelter. Instead she turned to her side, pulled the skin blanket more tightly around her, and closed her eyes. There was no reason to get up. There was no reason to go on. She lay there and hoped the spirits would do just one kind thing for her—let her starve to death without much pain.
She wanted to sleep, had no intention of getting up. After a while she found that she dozed on and off but still felt more and more tired. All she wanted was to sleep until the spirits took her.
Twice the sun traveled from the east to the west without the woman emerging from her shelter. Finally she became so thirsty and uncomfortable that she came out for water. She was surprised there was no hunger. Perhaps the spirits had heard her prayers.
Her sunken hearth was cold, and she kicked the charcoal, creating a cloud of ash. She took with her the pot she had left out days ago and trudged to the water. At the hammock’s edge, she sat on her heels and scooped water into her dry mouth. She filled the black pot and went back to her lean-to.
From the hole she took out a basket in which she had stored small pelts. From her waist she unstrapped the sheath that held the knife and put it inside the basket. If her people ever came for her, they would want this knife. This way they would be sure to find it. They would go through a woman’s basket because it contained her most treasured and valuable belongings. She wished she knew more about this incredible knife.
How long was this going to take? she wondered. When would the spirits relieve her from this anguish? How long before they ended it?
A thought came to her; she was certain it came from the spirits. She knew a plant that helped people sleep and took away pain, but too much of it would …The vine bloomed sweetly at night. She knew where it grew.
Without further deliberation, she found the plant, harvested sprigs of it, started a fire, then steeped the plant in a bowl of water. She knew the unripe green berries were the most effective part of the plant, but there was no fruit. She hoped the parts she had would do what she wanted.
When the tea had cooled enough to drink, the woman took a large swallow and waited for the effect. Nothing happened. She raised the cup to her mouth again, allowing the sweet scent to swirl up to her nose. A sleeping death had to be just as sweet. As she again held the bowl to her lips, she felt a wave of dizziness. She dropped the bowl, and it smashed on the ground.
No matter, she thought. The tea was already working on her. She set the basket with the knife just inside the opening of the lean-to. Off-balance, she crawled into the shelter, bundled up in the deerskin, closed her eyes, and waited for the sleeping death.
Her first sensation was one of floating. Her body felt so heavy, yet she was floating. Yes, this was much better than the life she had been living. There was nothing to be afraid of. Clouds whirled around her, wafting through the shelter, touching her with long soothing fingers, caressing her tired body, and lulling her mind.
Soon she became confused and wasn’t sure if she was awake, asleep, or in some strange dimension on the way to the Other Side. Were her eyes open or closed? The sounds in the woodland became enhanced, and she could even hear the voices of the spirits that were coming for her.
“There has been a fire nearby. I smell the smoke.”
She heard the voice and smiled. At last the end was approaching. “Come and take me,” she said softly.
“There. Do you see the small lodge?” the spirit voice said.
They had found her. “Here,” she whispered to the spirits, calling them to her. All about her, though her-eyes were closed, she saw lights—small, glittering, brilliant lights in the darkness. But then those lights were engulfed by blackness, and so was she.
“Is she alive?” Talasee asked as he watched Cherok crawl inside the shelter.
Cherok placed his fingertips on the side of her neck. Her face was chalky pale, and she was cold. He didn’t feel any pulse and lowered his head in front of her face, turning his cheek toward her, waiting to feel her breath.
“Yes,” he answered, “but barely. Help me with her.”
Cherok turned her onto her back and lifted her shoulders. “Take her feet. Let us get her out of here so I can see what is wrong.”
The two men maneuvered the woman out of the shelter and laid her on the ground. The deerskin fell away, her nakedness catching them by surprise. Cherok quickly replaced the blanket.
“She is bony,” Talasee commented.
Cherok cradled her head and shoulders against his body, giving her his warmth.“Woman,” he called softly. He lifted one of her eyelids. “Give me some water,” he told his friend.
Talasee handed him his water pouch.
“No, in my hands.”
Talasee poured some in Cherok’s palms. Cherok splashed the water on her face. “Woman,” he called again, gently tapping her cheeks.
The woman groaned and turned her head. The air was cold on her wet face.
“Good,” he said, elevating her head even more as he rested it against his chest. “Wake up.” He looked at his friend who knelt next to them. “Put more water,” he said.
Talasee obeyed, rubbing the cold water on the woman’s face.
The woman protested, shaking her head, her eyelids fluttering.
“Help me get her up,” Cherok said. “Keep her wrapped in the deerskin. We must take her with us.”
When he moved her, her eyes opened for a moment and looked hazily at him.
Talasee hesitated. “Wait, Cherok. You act too quickly. Is she Tegesta? She is not one of our clan.”
Cherok’s face showed his displeasure. “What does it matter? She could die if we leave her here.”
“But what if she is from another tribe? What if she is not Tegesta?”
“And what if she is?”
Talasee wrapped the blanket around her, and Cherok hoisted her over his shoulder, his arm under her buttocks, her head and arms dangling down his back. “Go through those things in the pit,” Cherok said. “Bring whatever we can use.” The woman’s black hair tumbled past his waist and brushed against his legs. “And do not forget her basket,” Cherok added. “It looks as though that is all she has.”
Talasee sorted through the supplies in the storage pit. He picked up a few of the pots, ate a handful of berries, and then retrieved the basket. His arms were full when he joined Cherok at the canoe.
“Do you think anyone else is on this hammock?” Talasee asked, looking down at the woman Cherok had laid in the bottom of the canoe.
“Perhaps you should scan it quickly. I will stay with the woman.”
Talasee put the things he had salvaged into the canoe and went back into the forest.
The woman groaned again as Cherok sprinkled more water on her face. “Wake up, woman, and drink,” he said, holding the pouch to her mouth. He poured a little across her cracked lips, then a little more. She sputtered and coughed. “You will have to wake up if you do not want to choke,” he said.
Slowly the woman strained to focus. The sky was a blinding blue and hurt her eyes. She heard a voice beside her and turned to see who it was. She saw a fuzzy image of someone. Perhaps a man and not a spirit.
“What has happened to you?” he asked.
It was a man. The voice was deep.
“Are you ill?”
She shook her head.
“Then what is wrong? Tell me so I can help you.”
The woman closed her eyes and turned away.
“No,” he said, splashing water on her face. “I cannot help you unless you tell me what is wrong. There are no wounds, no bleeding. We saw your pit. You were not starving.”
The woman did not answer him. She tried desperately to slip back into that dark, serene sleep where the spirits would come for her.
Cherok jostled her again. “Why do you not want to let me help? At least tell me your name.”
The woman shivered. Then she realized she understood his language. Maybe she was one of his people. “Cimmera,” she whispered, making up a Tegesta name for herself.
“Cimmera?” he repeated.
The woman nodded. Maybe she was Tegesta. He was rescuing her. Then she remembered the poison she had drunk. She was going to die.
She had a hard time thinking of the word, but at last she recalled it. Had she also forgotten how to speak her language? Was it coming back to her slowly?
“Poison,” she whispered.
“What poison?” he asked, shaking her to make sure she was awake. He watched her lips sluggishly form the name of the plant. Her answer brought a smile to his eyes. “There are no berries now,” he said, rocking his head back in relief. “You concocted yourself a very ineffective poison. I do not think you could drink enough of it to kill you. But you are sleepy, are you not?” he said in a sympathetic tone, stroking her cheek with the backs of his fingers to comfort her.
Cherok lifted her into his lap and then higher. She was not going to like this. He bent her over the side of the canoe and forced his finger down her throat, making her gag. She protested, but was too weak to resist. Again he probed her throat until finally she brought up the meager contents of her stomach. He repeated his efforts. She heaved, but nothing else came forth.
“Drink this,” he said, lifting her head and giving her water.
She was thirsty and took a big gulp.
Aggressively he again positioned her over the side of the canoe and thrust his finger down her throat once more, making her bring up the water she had drunk.
“Just to be sure everything is out,” he said.
The woman wiped her nose and mouth with the back of her hand.
“Here,” he said, cutting away a piece of her blanket with his knife. He dipped it into the water and handed it to her.
The woman swabbed her face.
He offered her some more water, but she refused.
“I will not do that again. Drink if you are thirsty.”
She sipped the water, expecting at any moment that he would twist her over the side of the dugout again. He smiled at her caution.
“I do what I say,” he told her. “I will not lie to you. Feel safe to drink.”
Eagerly she gulped some more.
Talasee approached. “The hammock appears clear. Only this woman,” he said as he climbed in the canoe.
“Her name is Cimmera,” Cherok said. “A good Tegesta name. And let me tell you what we are called,” he said to her. “This is Talasee, and I am called Cherok.”
She saw Talasee move the basket aside, and suddenly she remembered the knife. What if she was not Tegesta? The knife would give her away.
“Look at this,” Talasee said, reaching into the basket.
Talasee held a rare all-white pelt in his hand.
Cimmera forced herself upright, her head spinning. She grabbed the basket and clutched it close to her.
Talasee looked curiously at Cherok.
“Let it be,” Cherok said. “It belongs to the woman. As I said, these things are probably all she has.”
“But the fur?” Talasee said, knowing this pelt was very special.
“Put it back into the basket.”
Talasee nodded. Cherok was right, he knew that, but the white fur was truly something to covet.
Cimmera let him place the fur on top of her other things. The knife was still hidden. He hadn’t seen it.
She lay in the bottom of the canoe with her eyes closed, listening to them talk, understanding everything they said. But there was something very strange. She found that when she thought of speaking, she had trouble thinking of the correct words. Though she understood the two men, speaking their language was more difficult. Even when she had said her made-up name, the sound of it came out a bit garbled, as if her tongue found it unfamiliar. Maybe the cause was the poison she had drunk, and that would wear off, she thought. But as she continued to listen to the two men, she began to believe that her trouble with the language was more than that. The words in her head were hidden deep. Perhaps all her memory was sequestered in the same dark place.
The cool air seeped through her blanket as the canoe moved through the water, and she pulled the fur higher about her neck. If she could remember the language, find the words, then she also might find her memory. Hearing the words spoken had brought back much of the language, so maybe when she saw something, her past, too, would come tumbling back. Eventually all the pieces would come together.
Again she drifted into sleep, the poison still potent enough to make her dull and drowsy.
Cherok stared down at her. She looked so vulnerable and fragile. “I wonder what made her want to drink a poison,” he said to Talasee.
“Ask her,” Talasee said.
Cherok shook his head at the man’s response. It would not be mannerly to question this woman like that. Talasee always saw things so simply. He was a good man, but—
“You stare long at her,” Talasee said.
He was observant, also, Cherok thought. Her small frame was thin, yet the deerskin coverlet fell in at her waist and rose at the swell of her hips. He let his eyes linger a moment at the soft fullness of her breasts as they gently distended the deerskin. Her thick black lashes fanned delicately against her smooth, flawless skin. Though her face was pale, he imagined what she might look like with a blush in her cheeks and lips.
“Too bony,” Talasee remarked, shaking his head at the man who could not seem to stop looking at the woman in the bottom of their canoe.
“For you,” Cherok said, finally looking away and smiling at his friend. “There is ample flesh in all the right places.”
“I have never seen you take such an interest in a woman,” Talasee said.
“Not curiosity,” Talasee disagreed. “Arousal.”
Cherok laughed but knew Talasee was probably correct. She did engage him in the most basic way.
Dusk fell over them. Cimmera felt stiff. For an instant her eyes wandered. She had forgotten where she was.
“Cimmera,” Cherok said softly, noticing her open eyes.
She looked up at him. He stood above her, his legs long and lean, his torso firm and defined with muscle. His black hair spilled down to his shoulders, and a white feather hung beside his face, contrasting with the deep, rich hue of his skin.
He called her name again, aware of her disorientation.
“Yes,” she answered, finally realizing where she was and remembering in pieces how she had come to be in the bottom of this canoe that now was still.
“Talasee will return shortly. He is exploring this hammock. It appears to be uninhabited, but then we thought the same of your hammock before we found you. We plan to stay here for the night.”
Cimmera put her hand on her basket, which rested next to her. She felt the furs still on top.
“We have not taken anything.”
She looked back at him as he stooped next to her.
“Let me help you sit up,” he said, sliding one arm under her shoulders.
She felt dizzy and reached for him to steady herself.
“Better?” he asked as she loosened her grasp on his arm.
“When the sun comes again, you should be well. Tonight you will eat and drink plenty of water. That should speed your recovery.”
Cimmera shook her head.
“I have not gone to all this trouble to have you undo my endeavor.”
“No,” she said. “I am not hungry. My stomach is …”
What was the word?
“You will do as I say,” he said, pulling up the blanket, which had lazily slid down her arm.
Cimmera’s eyes darted at him. “I will do as I choose,” she snapped, grateful the words had come easily.
“And you will choose to eat and drink,” he said firmly, standing up as Talasee approached.
“The hammock is clear,” Talasee called.
Cherok held out his hand to Cimmera.
“I can stand alone,” she said.
Cherok smiled and drew back his hand, watching her.
Cimmera put one hand on the side of the dugout and attempted to step out. The canoe rocked, and the motion made dizziness sweep over her again. She wobbled, her knees buckling.
Cherok caught her and held her up. Her face was flush against his chest, and her one hand had lost its grip on the blanket, which had fallen to her waist.
The cold air chilled her, and the warmth of him felt good.
“Stubborn woman,” he said, pulling up the deerskin. “Why do you resist me so?”
Because I do not know who you are, she thought. Maybe you are the enemy.
He turned her to the side, and one of his arms curved under her knees and the other behind her shoulders. He lifted her and stepped out of the canoe.
Suddenly she felt his arms release her, and she splashed down into the cold shallow water.
“A bath would be good for you,” he said and grinned.
Talasee was gathering their things from the canoe and turned at the splash. He, too, smiled.
Cimmera’s face grew red with surprise and anger.
“That is more your natural color,” Cherok said, liking the flush in her cheeks. “We will take our time setting up camp. Call to me when you are finished, and I will bring you a blanket.”
Cimmera struggled inside the heavy wet hide. She wiped away the water that dripped in her face. “I will never call for you,” she said, still kicking and twisting to free herself of the blanket.
“Yes, you will,” he said, walking away with Talasee.
Cimmera shivered with the cold. Who was this man? What made him believe he could give her orders? She was not his woman. He did not even know who she was.
For a moment she took satisfaction in knowing that the name she had given him was made up. He knew nothing about her. But then, neither did she.
Finally free of the blanket, she washed herself, having decided that she might as well do so, since she was in the water. The old cracked mud slid away. She lay back and wet her hair, combing it with her fingers, freeing the twigs and leaves that were entrapped in snarls. As she cleaned herself, she thought of what she should do. There was not the slightest chance she would stay with this man. Perhaps this one night would be all that she would have to bear. In the morning they would leave, and she would refuse to go with them.
But as the sky darkened and the stars emerged, she knew her decision was not a good one. Staying alone again would be the same as death. She would think of something.
Before long, it was too dark to see around her. In the moonlight the water was a glittering black. Why did he not come back to check on her?
The wind rustled the leaves in the trees, and the sound of the bullfrogs made her anxious.
Where was he?
“I am finished,” she called out. She waited for Cherok to come and lay a deerskin blanket on the bank.
After a few more moments she called again.
The noises of the night grew louder, and she was certain that an alligator would find her soon. She waded out of the water and stood shivering in the trees, smelling the smoke of their fire. She would die of the cold before she would walk into their camp naked and at his command.
The soft fur of rabbits slid around her shoulders. Cimmera started and turned around. Cherok pulled the fur blanket closed in front of her.
In the moonlight her eyes caught his for a moment, and then he smiled and set her free, walking away into the depths of the shadows. When the darkness swallowed him, she trotted to catch up.
“Sit by the fire,” Cherok said. “I am sure you are chilled, but you smell better.”
She could see the smug smile that wrapped itself around his mouth. Cimmera did not respond to his comment. She sat near the flames, welcoming the heat. She leaned her head to the side, ruffling her hair before the fire to help it dry.
Cherok offered her a skewer of meat. “It is fresh. Thank Talasee.”
She nodded at Cherok’s companion.
Cherok found himself inspecting her. He liked what he saw even better now that all the dirt was cleaned away. Her eyes were bright in the firelight. The sheen of her damp hair made him want to touch it.
Cimmera held the skewer but did not take it to her mouth, though the cold water had stirred an appetite in her.
“Eat,” Cherok said.
She actually felt her mouth water but refused to give in.
“Please,” Cherok said, surprising her.
She looked up at him and found his expression was sincere. Cimmera nibbled at the meat, and it landed warmly in her stomach.
“Was your village destroyed by the storm?” Cherok asked.
Cimmera’s mind whirled. “Destroyed by the storm?” she repeated.
“Talasee and I seek survivors of our clan. We were gone on a Big Water journey when the storm struck. We returned to find our village destroyed. Is that what happened to your village? Is that why you were alone?”
Cimmera swallowed the piece of succulent meat. “Yes, that is what happened.”
“You have been wandering all this time?”
The woman hesitated, spinning a story in her head as fast as she could. “Yes …well, almost.”
Talasee bit a piece of meat off the stick and leaned to one side to see around the smoke. “Where was your village?”
Cimmera felt the tension inside her, her stomach balled up into a knot, and a cold sweat formed on the palms of her hands. “I do not know from here. I am not sure where I am.”
Cherok could tell that the conversation made her uncomfortable. “Of course you are confused. Look,” he said, moving close to her and pointing to a bright star. “We found you there, to the north. We have traveled south.”
“Oh,” Cimmera said, knowing that Cherok had picked up on her nervousness.
“You were out of Tegesta territory. The area where we found you is A-po-la-chee. We took a risk searching there, but we wanted to be sure none of our people had fled that far and needed to be rescued. Why did you go so far north instead of deeper into Tegesta territory?”
Cimmera shook her head. “I was …” She could not recall the word. She looked at Cherok, lines of fright carved around her eyes and the corners of her mouth.
“It is not important,” he said. “I just thought perhaps there was a reason that might help us locate any of our clan.”
“Frantic. I was frantic. The storm.”
“It is all right, Cimmera. I understand how it must have been for you.” He touched her hand, which had found its way to her lips as if she were attempting to hide her words with her fingertips. Gently he took her hand in his and guided it down to her lap.
She didn’t know what to say in response. Her nervousness was from the lies, not from recalling the fright she had suffered during a storm. She did not remember any storm. And what had he said? She was in the land of the A-po-la-chee. What if she was A-po-la-chee? Perhaps that was why the Tegesta words were so difficult for her to think of and say. Tegesta might not be her language. She must have learned it from prisoners and slaves. She turned away from him, looked at the coals of the fire, and cringed when she thought of the knife again.
“Where is my basket?” she asked, whipping her head back to face him.
“Still in the dugout,” Talasee said before Cherok had a chance to answer.
“I want it,” she said, immediately realizing how abrupt and demanding she sounded. But it was too late; she had already blurted out the sharp words.
“Then go get it,” Cherok said, the softer lines of his face surrendering to the coarser. “If you were expecting a favor, you did not encourage one with your tongue.”
Cimmera looked away. She couldn’t explain her bad manners.
“Did you have a husband?” Cherok asked.
“No,” she answered, wondering how she had known that. This piece of information was not a lie; it had come from her memory. She knew her face reflected the excitement she felt at the prospect of remembering her past, even if it was such a small morsel.
Cherok misunderstood the curl of her lips. “I did not ask for personal reasons. I was curious what man would have a woman who speaks so impertinently.”
Cherok’s statement cut straight through her. Those questions she had been asking about herself—who she was and what she was like—rose again in a flood, and she wished the poison she had swallowed had worked.
She felt her eyes sting and promptly put a stop to it. This man who had dropped her into the water, who said that she would do exactly as he asked, and who then had the arrogance to call her impertinent—this man would not make her cry. If she decided to cry, it would be her doing.
“Tell me the name of someone from your village. A warrior. I am familiar with many men from most of the Tegesta villages,” Cherok said.
Cimmera changed her mind about crying, finding an advantage in it now. She allowed her eyes to fill with tears.
“I did not mean to be insensitive. It must be painful for you to think about those you have lost.”
She wiped away the tear that slowly rolled down her cheek. “I do not want to talk about it. Ever.”
Talasee tossed his stick into the fire. “There could still be someone alive. You are.” He sounded annoyed.
“You are heartless.” She fired the insult at him.
Talasee’s spine straightened, and he lifted one eyebrow. “If you would think of others a moment before yourself, you would see that I mean no harm. If we knew where your village was, we could search more of that area.”
Cimmera looked back at Cherok, putting together the sentence in her head before she spoke. “Your friend lacks kindness.”
“I believe my friend is right,” Cherok said. “Though thinking of those you love is painful, it might help. If you survived the storm, others from your village also may be alive. Give me some names. I will know the village.”
“Leave me alone,” she cried.
“Just some names. Then you will not have to think about it anymore.”
Cimmera stood up, pulling the fur wrap around her and ran out of the firelight, disappearing into shadows.
Talasee started to go after her, but Cherok held his arm out. “Let her go. She needs to sort through things. If she took poison, her suffering must be great. Perhaps I pushed her too far.”
“I suppose you are right.” Talasee sat down again. “Do you think she will take the canoe?”
“There is nowhere for her to go.”
“She might be angry enough, or want to be alone enough, to take it just to get away from us.”
“She might be angry enough, but she will realize she has nowhere to run.” Cherok hesitated a moment as he chewed on a long stem of grass. “I will follow her anyway and stay out of sight.”
Talasee nodded, and Cherok left the camp.
Near the bank he ducked behind the trees and brush. He could see her silhouette as she climbed into the canoe and grabbed a paddle. She wrestled with the fur blanket and the oar. He could hear her fret and then her quiet sobbing.
Finally she sat in the canoe and threw the paddle into the bottom of the dugout, yanked the furs around her, and buried her face in the soft wrap as she lifted it from underneath.
He heard her scream, muffled as it was. So much had to be hurting this woman. As he watched her, he decided not to press her again about her village. Broaching the subject again would be up to her. He would advise Talasee.
When her crying quieted, he approached the canoe. Cimmera saw him as he touched the bow.
“Please,” she mumbled. “Leave me alone.”
“I will ask you no more questions,” he said, stepping inside the canoe, and then sitting next to her. “Your heart is afflicted with too much anguish.” He put his arm around her and encouraged her to rest her head on his shoulder.
They sat in silence, her head leaning heavily against him.
Cimmera’s eyes filled with tears again. She had spun herself a chrysalis of lies and had hidden inside it. She was not a real person. She was made up, a fantasy, created in her head as she went along. Even the reasons that this man was trying to comfort her were all lies. Everything he knew about her was a lie. Almost everything she knew about herself was a lie.