by Dawn Elliot
As her clan slogs through the forbidden Veran Marsh, the young Roamer woman Zhira realizes that her kinfolk have unwittingly committed a horrific act.
The cooking smells wafting from the fire at the heart of the Roamer camp were spicy and familiar, but they made Zhira shudder with fear and revulsion. She was hungry; who wouldn’t be after a day spent slogging through endless swamp? Everyone was hungry and tired–and frightened. But she lingered at the pony lines and pretended not to hear her mother calling her for dinner.
The treacherous Veran Marsh was friend to no one. Even the cleverly built and brightly painted Roamer wagons were mired down. The road they were supposed to be following appeared and disappeared–tricking the eye with what should be shallow puddles that turned out to be deep, sucking mud pits–and even the sun was a chancy companion, often hidden in such thick mist it was impossible to judge distance or direction. Zhira’s back ached from a day of digging her mother’s blue and red striped wagon out of ruts. Her voice was ragged from hours spent coaxing the skittish ponies as they stumbled from weariness, and her hands were cut and bruised from hauling on harnesses in hope of providing the exhausted beasts some relief. All the while her head had turned around, as if on strings, to stare fearfully out at the dripping trees and stinking mists of the forbidden swamp. She was sure there had been times when she’d caught sight, from the corner of her eye, of something staring back. Zhira could not describe it, nor point it out to her older brother sitting guard with his crossbow on top of the wagon, but she knew it was there. Her spirit told her what her eyes could not. The swamp knew they were trespassers and had turned its evil awareness on them.
Zhira was Roamer born and bred; dark gleaming eyes and the black hair now tangled and clotted with mud were as much her heritage as the yellow and green skirts she wore. Ever since she’d been old enough to walk, Zhira had tasted the dust of a dozen different kingdoms and watched her mother and the other women of her clan dance for coin and pitied the out-clan peasants who died within sight of where they were born. There was no river too wide to cross, no mountain too high to climb, no rocky road could defeat the shaggy coated ponies and stubbornness of her Roamer blood. The sky was all the roof she needed, and every open field was a Roamer’s homestead. But no Roamer clan traveled the twisting paths of the Veran Marsh. It was a land long abandoned by her people. Wicked children who didn’t do their chores were threatened with tales of the iron-clawed spirits of the marsh, which would steal them away. Zhira stared fearfully out at the darkness, while also fearing the warm fires and cheerful conversation at her back.
“Easy, Snip,” she whispered to the oldest and cleverest of the harness ponies. Snip snuffled along Zhira’s sleeve, looking for the treats she usually carried. But there was nothing there tonight. There was nothing extra for the hard-working Roamer ponies, no extra food, shelter, or kindness. If not for the luck of the hunters, one of the ponies would have been slaughtered so the clan could eat. Zhira patted Snip’s soft nose. Perhaps even Snip.
“Zhira!” Her mother’s voice, clearly annoyed now, rose over the sing-song voices of her clan.
“Coming!” Zhira patted the pony once more and glanced out at the dark trees. The animals were uneasy. Even the thin, hungry dogs were ignoring the bloody bones tossed their way, sniffing instead out into the tangle of dead trees with their hackles raised. The half-seen branches and lumpy, moss-covered trunks made her as uneasy as they did the beasts. Guilt lay heavy in her stomach and seemed to fill the darkness around the camp. The damp evening breeze breathed accusations on the back of her neck.
With slow steps, Zhira made her way back to the firelight and her family.
“Come on child!” Her mother said with exasperation in her voice. “Sit and eat, the stew is nearly ready.”
“Yes, Zhira. Come sit here.” Eharan gave her his broken grin and patted the upturned log next to his. “I’ve got a place all warmed up for you.”
Zhira went to sit next to her second uncle. “Thank you, Uncle.”
Eharan only laughed and tossed an arm about her shoulders, giving her a rough hug. “So formal? What, gone off and gotten yourself queened now have you, Zhira? Look who’s gone all noble on us!”
Her twin cousins laughed and made bobbing bows toward her, popping up and down like gophers from their holes, while they begged to be made her generals and councilors. Bright laughter rose around the fire. Cheer was easy to come by now, after the struggle and grief of the last few months. With a warm fire, and the stew sending a mouthwatering fragrance into the night, the empty places among them could be forgotten for a time.
But beneath all the light banter and relief was something dark. Zhira didn’t know what it was, but it had been growing ever since they’d stepped into the marsh, as if the watching shadows under the trees and filling the murky pools had somehow crept into the hearts of her cousins, her uncle, and even her own mother. Zhira struggled to dismiss her fears as foolish. The familiar faces around her, pinched and suspicious looking in the flickering firelight, were her family. The shadows were only the echoes of hunger and hardship. Zhira clung to that belief and pushed aside the worry gnawing at her heart like the hunger in her belly.
It had been a bad year. Sickness in the Theocracy of Jarzon made the farmers and townsmen poor and angry. What coin they could spare went into the alms boxes of the Temples of the Light. Instead of coin, they threw curses and mud at Roamer tinkers and jugglers. Some even blamed them for poor harvests and plague. Then the sickness struck Zhira’s clan. As if some evil intent guided it, the sickness sought out the strongest and healthiest first: her father, her older brothers, the clan headman. All went down under the ground after a blessedly few days of gut pain and sweating chills.
Without the headman and his knowledge of the hidden paths, the clan suffered hard roads and harder times. The sickness never quite left, stealing someone away every now and then, and hunger began to pinch the faces of the children. The mother’s milk dried, and the babies went hungry to bed. Some died.
Eharan led the clan now, but with ambition rather than wisdom. Contemptuous of the traditions he felt had kept him from the respect he deserved, Eharan took the clan off the familiar roads they’d walked all their lives. There were richer towns in Aldis, a land of peace where peasants and townsmen were all fools and their hands full of silver for Roamer dancers and tinkers. Only the marsh stood between them and that fabled land of plenty. Hungry, sick, and frightened, Zhira’s family listened to Eharan’s promises and turned out of Jarzon to enter the fearful marsh.
A warm bowl was placed in her hands. Zhira stared at the thick stew, full of onions and wild herbs and heavy with meat. Her stomach churned, and she could find no sharp-tongued retort for her uncle’s friendly teasing. All she could see was soft wise eyes, wide with shock.
Then glassy with death.
There were many reasons to fear the Veran Marsh. The creatures within it were one of them: ghost cats and golden deer that spoke, spider-folk, and ghost lights that lured travelers to their deaths.
“C’mon, niece.” Eharan hugged her again, gently this time. There was concern in his voice but that lingering darkness as well, as if she were being judged on a simple meal. “We were waiting on you. There’s no need for us to go hungry this night.”
He put the carved wooden spoon in her hand and patted her wrist. “Eat.”
Head hanging and black hair tumbling down to hide her face, Zhira numbly put the spoon in the bowl. The smell of herbs and rich meat rose around her. It had been so long since they’d had a full meal, never mind one with meat in it. The strange marsh deer had been a gift from the ancestors, as Eharan had said, coming back to camp with it slung bloody and limp over his shoulders. She glanced around. She got the terrible sense, looking into the glitter of dark Roamer eyes, that they were all watching her. Waiting.
Her gaze fell on Eharan’s wagon, the white pelt tacked over it to cure, the single pearlescent horn, stump still bloody, near it. Worth its weight in gold, Eharan had said — and proof their luck was turning. Soon they’d all be as rich as kings. Suddenly Eharan’s arm around her shoulders felt like a weight imprisoning her, and the joking faces of her family were the mocking faces of enemies. Cold crept through her blood, and she felt as if something beyond the familiar firelight waited, watched, and judged.
Zhira couldn’t tear her eyes away and the bowl trembled in her numb hands. “No–“.
“Zhira–” Her mother’s voice was distant, like a ghost. And the marsh seemed to grow silent around the camp. The mist weighed heavily on Zhira’s mind, and her fingers curled around the handle of the spoon. There was a sense of sickly triumph, like cruel laughter, and Zhira could feel her own panicked heart beating like a bird in a cage.
“No!” She leapt up, throwing aside the spoon, and on sudden desperate impulse, she lunged forward and, in a scattering of sparks and smoke, pulled over the tripod holding the communal stewpot over the fire. Steam shot up with the stink of burning vegetables and wet wood. The frozen stillness was shattered.
“Zhira!” Eharan bellowed, flushing red with rage as everyone scattered, shouting, from the boiling stew spilling across the muddy ground. “Dammit, fool girl!”
“It’s wrong, it’s wrong!” She yelled at her cousins, staring at her in shock; at her mother’s pinched, hungry face; at Eharan’s fury.
“No!” Zhira yelled again, unable to explain but knowing in her heart her clan had been on the edge of committing a terrible crime.
Zhira fled to the familiar comfort of her bed, slamming the door of the wagon against her mother’s worry and Eharan’s angry shouts. She burrowed into the piled quilts and comforters, as brightly patterned as her own clothes. Smelling of pennyroyal, the worn cotton accepted her tears without protest.
It was her fault. She curled around her misery, muffling her sobs into her pillow. She had been the one to see the creature, so like a miracle, especially in the dull Veran Marsh. If only she had remained silent, the beast would still be alive. Zhira shuddered. It would be alive, and the darkness in the marsh would not have gotten a stranglehold on her family.
The mists had been heavy and frightening, clammy on Zhira’s skin and cold in her throat.
“Heeya, Snip. C’mon, Jebbi.” She had tiredly coaxed the ponies along the lumpy track Eharan called a road. She and the ponies both were knee-deep in mud. Behind her other wagons creaked and squealed as they struggled wearily along.
A faint hint of blue sky made Zhira pause. It felt like forever since she’d seen the sun. The mist turned gold in the brief sunbreak, and her heart lightened. Suddenly it seemed the Veran Marsh was not so terrible after all. Then in the glowing mists a flash of silver made Zhira’s black eyes widen in delight and awe.
Standing on a hillock, not far from the straggling line of Roamer wagons, was the strangest, most beautiful creature she’d ever seen. Like a milk-white deer, but bigger, and with a single twisting horn. The animal’s eyes were the deepest, wisest blue and looked deep into Zhira’s soul with pure love.
“Oh . . . ” Zhira breathed, dropping the pony lead and stepping blindly off the track toward the creature. It shifted, bowing its dainty head as if inviting her closer. “Look . . . so beautiful . . .”
“What, Zhira?” Her brother’s voice above her made her turn and point to the wondrous creature.
“Look, Kahaen!” she said excitedly. “Isn’t it beautiful!”
But it wasn’t beauty her brother saw. Zhira’s eyes barely had time to widen in horror. “No, Kahaen! No!”
Her brother was quick with the crossbow; he’d won more than a few shooting contests. Kahaen had his bow out, already knocked in fear of the marsh shadows, and his arm snapped up in a flurry of yellow sleeves.
“No!” Zhira screamed, whirling toward the beast, its eyes now wide in almost disbelieving alarm. “Run! Oh, run!”
And it ran, but Kahaen’s arrow was swifter. The bright blossom of blood on the creature’s white haunches made Zhira shriek as if she’d been the one shot.
Still the beast ran, struggling into the mist, and the excited shouts of her brother and the rest of the clan drowned out her protests. The dogs were released to bell and chase, her brother and the other hunters swiftly following.
It had been Eharan who had claimed the kill. Bloody and triumphant he’d brought back the carcass, and all the beauty and nobility Zhira had seen standing like a king on the hill was now just a bloody pelt, and dinner.
Zhira’s stomach lurched at the memories, and she groaned, sick with weeping. Struggling to master her sobs, she heard voices outside.
“Damn that girl!” Eharan ranted outside. His voice was harsh, control over his foul temper clearly fraying. “We’ve no need of phantoms and fancies to trouble us now! What — we should starve over the life of a deer? That was all the meat we had! We’ll have to hope the snares I set this afternoon bring tomorrow’s dinner. She’s your daughter, Nahri. Settle her down!”
“Don’t fret, Headman,” Nahri said soothingly, using the title Eharan never truly earned. “She’s just weary — we all are — and young. Rest will bring her good sense back. Zhira’s a good daughter of the clan.”
“Get some solid food into her.” Eharan’s voice deepened and was almost cruel, though his words were concerned. “That beast was nothing more than an animal. It bled and died like one. Her foolishness is troubling the children. Get some food into her.” Zhira shuddered at the clatter of dishes outside the wagon. “And get her calmed down and reasonable.”
The door creaked open a few moments later, and Zhira listened to her mother’s slow steps, like the tread of an executioner. She lay very still and pretended to sleep.
Her mother came to her bedside, and all of Zhira’s pretense nearly shattered as she felt the familiar caress of her mother’s hand on her unkempt hair. Then her mother spoke, whispering softly, and Zhira’s eyes squeezed shut, as if she were still a little girl afraid of ghosts. It was her mother’s voice but different in some way, darker, almost cruel.
“Eat, my dear, and grow strong.” Her mother’s gentle hand on her hair contrasted sickeningly with the cold tone in her voice. She knew Zhira was awake. “There is no room for weakness here. When you are done with your dinner, you can come out again.”
Zhira remained very still as she heard her mother set the bowl down next to the bed and turn away, wagon swaying slightly with her steps. Wide eyed, she heard the rasp of the bolt as her mother closed the door behind her, locking Zhira inside.
She would not eat. She would not. Zhira stared at the food as she crouched next to the sturdy, and locked, door of her mother’s wagon. She could hear the curses and groans of her kin outside, feel the shudder and jerk of the wagon as they continued the seemingly endless journey through the marsh.
“Mama,” she whispered, too hoarse to shout any longer. “Let me out.” She spent much of the day pounding on the door, yelling and screaming to be let out, and the clan ignored her, leaving her locked up inside the wagon as if she were some madwoman to be hidden from sight.
The long day passed, and the wagons stopped for the night. Zhira heard voices outside, as fires were kindled, and the clatter of another sparse meal. She overheard the anger and blame in the clan’s complaints as they were forced to settle for wild herbs and moldering vegetables, rather than the fresh meat she had wasted. She should have felt guilty for the hunger she’d caused, but instead she felt relief. Her clan had barely avoided a terrible fate. The only meat left was here with her: the bowl of stew she’d rejected last night. Zhira stayed pressed in the corner, arms wrapped around her knees, and stared, exhausted, at the simple clay bowl of cold stew. She heard the camp quiet, as her kin bedded down. Wearily, Zhira shut her eyes and let her head fall to her knees. Surely her mother would let her out tomorrow. Wouldn’t she?iv>