Morrighan, p.1
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       Morrighan, p.1

           Mary E. Pearson
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  Before borders were drawn, before treaties were signed, before wars were waged anew, before the great kingdoms of the Remnant were even born and the world of old was only a hazy slate of memory told in story and legend, a girl and her family fought to survive. And that girl’s name was Morrighan.

  She asks for another story, one to pass the time and fill her.

  I search for the truth, the details of a world so long past now, I’m not sure it ever was.

  Once upon a time, so very long ago,

  In an age before monsters and demons roamed the earth,

  A time when children ran free in meadows,

  And heavy fruit hung from trees,

  There were cities, large and beautiful with sparkling towers that touched the sky.

  Were they made of magic?

  I was only a child myself. I thought they could hold a whole world. To me they were made of—

  Yes, they were spun of magic and light and the dreams of gods.

  And there was a princess?

  I smile.

  Yes, my child, a precious princess just like you. She had a garden filled with trees that hung with fruit as big as a man’s fist.

  The child looks at me, doubtful.

  She has never seen an apple but she has seen the fists of men.

  Are there really such gardens, Ama?

  Not anymore.

  Yes, my child, somewhere. And one day you will find them.

  —The Last Testaments of Gaudrel

  Chapter One


  I was eight years old the first time I saw him. In that terrifying moment, I was certain I was about to die. He was a scavenger, and I had never been that close to one before. Alone. I had nothing to defend myself except for a few stones that lay near my feet, and I was too gripped with fear to stoop and grab them. A handful of stones would have done me little good anyway. I saw the knife sheathed at his side.

  He stood on a boulder, looking down curiously, studying me. Bare chested, with wild knotted hair, he was everything savage I had been warned about, even if he was little more than a child himself. His chest was narrow, and his ribs were easily countable.

  I heard the distant thunder of hooves, and fear vibrated through me. More were coming, and there was nowhere to run. I was trapped, cowering between two boulders in a dark crevice below him. I didn’t breathe. Didn’t move. I couldn’t even break my gaze from his. I was fully and utterly prey, a silent rabbit effectively hunted and cornered. I was going to die. He eyed the sack of seed that I had spent the morning gathering. In my haste and terror, I had dropped it, and the seed had spilled out between the boulders.

  The boy’s gaze shot up, and the clamor of horses and shouts filled my ears.

  “Did you get something?” A loud voice. The one Ama hates. The one she and the others whisper about. The one who stole Venda.

  “They scattered. I couldn’t catch up,” the boy called.

  Another disgusted voice. “And nothing was left behind?”

  The boy shook his head.

  There were more shouts of discontent and then the rumble of hooves again. Leaving. They were leaving. The boy climbed down from the boulder and left too, without another glance or word to me, his face deliberately turned away, almost as if he were shamed.

  * * *

  I didn’t see him again for another two years. The close call had instilled a heavy dose of fear in me, and I didn’t wander far from the tribe again. At least not until one warm spring day. The scavengers had seemed to move on. We’d seen no sign of them since the first frost of autumn.

  But there he was, a head taller and trying to pull cattails from my favorite pond. His blond hair had only grown wilder, his shoulders slightly wider, his ribs as evident as ever. I watched his frustration grow as the stalks he pulled broke off one after another and he came up with only worthless pieces of stems.

  “You’re impatient.”

  He spun, drawing his knife.

  Even at the tender age of ten, I knew I was taking a risk exposing myself. I wasn’t even sure why I did it, especially once I saw his eyes. Feral and hungry, there was no recognition.

  “Take your boots off,” I said. “I’ll show you.”

  He stabbed at the air as I took a step closer, but I sat down and removed my own calfskin slippers, never taking my eyes off him, thinking I might need to run after all.

  As his fear receded, so did his wild, glassy gaze, and recognition finally spread across his face. I had changed more than he had in two years. He lowered his knife.

  “You’re the girl between the boulders.”

  I nodded and pointed to his boots. “Take those off. You’ll have to wade in if you want to get some corms.”

  He pulled off his boots and followed me out, knee-deep into the pond, the rushes springing up between us. I told him to feel with his toes, to work them into the mud to loosen the fat, fleshy tuber before pulling. Our toes had to do as much of the work as our hands. There were few words between us. What was there for a scavenger and a child of the Remnant to say to each other? All we had in common was hunger. But he seemed to understand I was paying him back for his act of mercy two years ago.

  By the time we parted, he had a sack full of the fleshy roots.

  “This is my pond now,” he said sharply as he tied the sack to his saddle. “Don’t come here again.” He spat on the ground to emphasize his point.

  I knew what he was really saying. The others would come here now, too. It wouldn’t be safe.

  “What’s your name?” I asked as he mounted his horse.

  “You are nothing!” he answered, as if he’d heard a different question from my lips. He settled into his saddle, then reluctantly looked my way again. “Jafir de Aldrid,” he answered.

  “And I am—”

  “I know who you are. You’re Morrighan.” He galloped off.

  It was another four years before I saw him again, and the whole of that time, I wondered how he knew my name.

  Chapter Two


  It seemed being afraid was in my blood. It kept me ever aware, but even at ten years old, I was weary of it. I remember I returned to camp warily that day. From an early age, I had known we were different. It was what helped us to survive. But it also meant little passed by the others, even the hidden and unsaid. Ama, Rhiann, Carys, Oni, and Nedra were strongest in the knowing. And Venda too, but she was gone now. We didn’t talk of her.

  Ama spoke without lifting her gaze from her basket of beans, her gray and black hair pulled back neatly in a braid. “Pata tells me you left the camp while I was gone.”

  “Only to the pond beyond the rock wall, Ama. I didn’t go far.”

  “Far enough. It only takes a moment for a scavenger to snatch you up.”

  We’d had this conversation many times. The scavengers were wild and reckless, thieves and savages preying on the work of others. And sometimes they were killers too, depending
on their whim. We hid in the hills and ruins, quiet in our footsteps, soft in voice, the walls of an empty world giving us cover, and where the walls were only dust, the tall grasses hid us.

  But sometimes even that was not enough.

  “I was careful,” I whispered.

  “What called you to the pond?” she asked.

  I was empty-handed—nothing to show as a reason for my trek. As soon as Jafir had galloped off, I had left. I could not lie to Ama. There were as many questions in her pauses as in her words. She knew.

  “I saw a scavenger boy there. He was tearing at the cattails.”

  Her eyes darted up. “You didn’t—”

  “He was a boy named Jafir.”

  “You know his name? You spoke to him?” Ama jumped to her feet, scattering the beans in her lap. She grabbed my shoulders first, then brushed my hair back, examining my face. Her hands traveled frantically up and down my arms, searching for injuries. “Are you all right? Did he harm you? Did he touch you?” Her eyes were sharp with fear.

  “Ama, he didn’t harm me,” I said firmly, trying to dispel her fears. “He only told me not to come to the pond anymore. That it is his pond now. And then he left with a sack of corms.”

  Her face hardened. I knew what she was thinking—they take it all—and it was true. They did. Just when we had settled on the far side of a valley, or meadow, or among the abandoned shelters, they would come upon us, stealing and sowing terror in their path. I was angry with myself now for showing Jafir how to loosen the tubers. We owed the scavengers nothing when they had taken so much from us.

  “Was it always so, Ama? Wouldn’t they be part of the Remnant too?”

  “There are two kinds who survive, those who persevere and those who prey.”

  She scanned the horizon, and her chest rose in a weary breath. “Come, help me collect the beans. Tomorrow we leave for a new valley. A far one.”

  There were no valleys far enough from their kind. They sprouted as freely as burrs in the meadow grass.

  Nedra, Oni, and Pata grumbled but said nothing more. They deferred to Ama because she was the oldest and the head of our tribe, the only one among us who remembered Before. Besides, we were used to moving on and searching for a peaceful valley of plenty. Somewhere there had to be one. Ama had told us so. She had seen it with her own eyes when she was a child, before the foundation of the earth was shaken and before the stars fell from the sky. Somewhere there had to be a place where we were safe from them.

  Chapter Three


  I wiped the blood running from my nose. I knew better than to draw my knife—but I would not always be a head shorter than Steffan. He seemed to know this too. The back of his hand came less frequently these days.

  “You were gone all day, and you only have a bag of weeds to show for it?” he shouted.

  Piers puffed on his pipe, gloating over Steffan’s display. “It is more than I see dangling from your hand.”

  The others laughed, hoping the insult would escalate Steffan’s wrath into a brawl, but he only waved away Piers’s remark with disgust. “I can’t bring home a suckling pig every day. We must all contribute things of worth.”

  “You stole the pig. Five minutes of effort,” Piers countered.

  “What is your point, old man? It filled your stomach, didn’t it?”

  Liam snorted. “It didn’t fill mine. You should have stolen two.”

  Fergus threw a rock, telling them all to shut up. He was hungry.

  So it went every night, our camp always on the edge of hot words and fists, but our strength came from each other too. We were strong. No one crossed us for fear of consequence. We had horses. We had weapons. We had earned the right to cut others down.

  Laurida waved me over, and I dumped out my bag. We both began cutting off the tender corms, then peeling the tougher stalks. I had known she would be pleased. She favored the green shoots, frying them up in pig fat, and ground the larger stalks into flour. Bread was a rarity for us—unless it was stolen too.

  “Where did you find them?” Laurida asked.

  I looked at her, startled. “Find what?”

  “These,” she said, holding up a handful of the cut stalks. “What’s the matter with you? Did the sun fry your brain?”

  The stalks. Of course. That was all she meant. “A pond. What difference does it make?” I snapped back.

  She hit me on the side of the head, then leaned closer, examining my bloodied nose. “He’ll break it one of these days,” she growled. “For the better. You’re too pretty anyway.”

  The pond was already forgotten. I could not tell them that the girl had found me at the pond today, stalked me, fallen upon me without warning, rather than the other way around. I would suffer more than a bloody nose. It was shameful to be taken by surprise, especially by one of them. Their kind was stupid. Slow. Weak. The girl had even revealed her stupidity when she showed me how to take her food.

  The next day I went back to the pond, but this time I hid behind some rocks, waiting for her to come. After an hour, I waded into the rushes to harvest the stalks, thinking that might lure her out. It didn’t. Maybe she wasn’t as stupid as the rest. Maybe she had actually listened to my warning. Yes, Jafir had frightened her. It was my pond now. Jafir’s pond, forever and always.

  I loaded my sack and rode farther south, looking for her camp. They had no horses—we made sure of that. She couldn’t be staying far from the pond, but there was no sign of her.

  “Morrighan,” I whispered, testing the feel of it on my tongue. “Mor-uh-gon.”

  Harik didn’t even know my name, called me something different each time he visited. But he knew hers. Why would the greatest warrior of the land know the name of a thin, weak girl? Especially one of them.

  When I found her, I would make her tell me. And then I would hold my knife to her throat until she cried and begged for me to let her go. Just like Fergus and Steffan did with the tribespeople who hid food from us.

  From a hilltop, I looked across the valleys, empty except for the wind waving a few grasses.

  The girl hid well. I did not find her again for four more years.

  Chapter Four


  “Here,” Pata said. “This is a good place.”

  A twisted path had brought us there, one not easily followed, a path that I had helped find, the knowing taking root in me and growing stronger.

  Ama eyed the thicket of trees. She eyed the jumble of potential shelters. She eyed the hills and stony bluffs that hid us from view. But mostly I saw her eyeing the tribe. They were tired. They were hungry. They mourned. Rhiann had died at the hands of a scavenger when she refused to let go of a baby goat in her arms.

  Ama looked back at the small vale and nodded. I could hear the tribe’s heartbeat as well as she could. Its rhythm was weak. It ached.

  “Here,” Ama agreed, and the tribe laid down their packs.

  I surveyed our new home, if you could call it that. The structures were dangerous, mostly made of wood and in ruin from neglect, the passage of decades, and of course from the great storm. They would collapse at any time—most already had—but we could make our own lean-tos from the scraps. We could make a place to stay that might last more than a few days. Moving on was all I had ever known, but I knew there had been a time when people stayed, a time when you could belong to one place forever. Ama had told me so, and sometimes I dreamed myself there. I dreamed myself to places I had never seen, to glass towers crowned by clouds, to sprawling orchards heavy with red fruit, to warm, soft beds surrounded by curtained windows.

  These were the places that Ama described in her stories, places where all the children of the tribe would be princes and princesses and their stomachs always full. It was a once-upon-a-time world that used to be.

  In the last month since Rhiann’s death, we had never stayed anywhere for more than a day or two. Bands of scavengers had run us off after taking our food. The encounter with Rhiann had been the
worst. Since then we’d been walking for weeks, gathering little along the way. The south had proved no safer than the north, and to the east, Harik ruled, his reach and reign growing every day. To the west over the mountains, the sickness of the storm still lingered, and beyond that, wild creatures roamed freely. Like us, they were hungry and preyed on anyone foolish enough to range there. At least, that is what I was told—no one I knew had crossed the barren mountains. We were hemmed in on all sides, always looking for a small hidden corner to settle. At least we had each other. We knit closer to fill the hole Rhiann had left.

  And the hole Venda had left too. I was six was she went away. Pata said she was sick with storm dust. Oni said she was curious, making the word sound like an illness. Ama said she was stolen, and the other miadres agreed.

  We set about making a camp. Hopes were high. This small vale felt right. No one would venture here, and there was ample water nearby. Oni reported there was a meadow of maygrass just over the knoll, and she spotted a grove of oak beyond that.

  Altogether there were nineteen of us. Eleven women, three men, and five children. I was the oldest of the children by three years. I remember that spring I felt distanced from the rest. Their play annoyed me. I knew I was on the brink of something different, but with all the sameness of our daily lives, I couldn’t imagine what that something might be. Every day was like the one before. We survived. We feared. And sometimes we laughed. What was the new feeling that stirred in me? I wasn’t sure I liked it. It was a rumbling something like hunger.

  We all helped to drag the pieces of wood, some of it with large letters that had once been part of something else, a partial message that didn’t matter anymore. Others found rusty metal sheets to lean against piled rocks. I grabbed a large plank flecked with blue. Ama said the world was once painted with colors of every kind. Now blue was a rarity, usually only found in the sky or in a clear pond that reflected it, like the pond where I had seen Jafir. Four winters had passed since I saw him last. I wondered if he was still alive. Though our tribe was ever on the edge of starvation, the scavengers were on the edge of something worse. They didn’t care for their own the way we did.

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