I was born in Moambe, a small village deep in the Silver Forest. My family and I lived in a longhome, a large, sturdy house built on stilts off the ground. The roof dipped in the middle and flared out at either end, as if wanting to sprout wings. Tall trees stood all around us: parong, monkeypod, sweetgum. Some gave fruit in the summer, others flowers in the spring. The most precious gave us medicine and bark paper to write on.
Our home was very crowded. On the bottom, among the stilts, was where we kept our pigs, chickens, and goats, while meals, meetings, and ceremonies took place on the main floor. Colorful reed mats covered the floor, for my mother was the village's senior reed-weaver. Living with us were my mother's sisters and their children, whom I called brother and sister even though we were cousins. My father, a trader, lived apart from us in a small hut as was customary for married men. As I was a bright child, curious and quick, my favorites among my extended family were those who had a healthy sense of imagination. We had many adventures in the friendly trees.
Did I mention most of us went about naked? Although the Silver Forest is not a proper jungle like the Panjarl, it could get quite hot. When we passed puberty, or had to travel out of the village, boys wore a loincloth, girls a decorated apron. Adults dressed more modestly, but not by much.
Things were uneventful up until the time I neared puberty myself. Soon after my birthday my father visited the longhome to see how I was getting on. "How old are you now, Jozhande?" he asked.
He had a soft deep voice, and I thrilled to hear it. "Twelve, Papa." I said.
"You're old enough to go to the city. Tomorrow I am taking some of your mother's mats to the marketplace in the city. You will come with me."
My mother cast him a sharp glance, looking up from her mats. Her fingers were as rough as the bark strips she wove. But that was my father's way of introducing his children to the world. He had taken my two older brothers to see the city when they came of age, and so he would do the same with me.
The next day at dawn we loaded up the oxcart with reed mats, bright batiked cloth, coconuts, and several cages of fat pullets. I was so excited I could hardly eat my breakfast. I had never been more than an hour's walk from the village before, and Karistanapool was large enough to hold ten, twenty, fifty Moambes within its high stone walls. The God-King of Pharazion lived there in a pyramid-palace built of somber basalt. My father told me he would sometimes come onto his balcony to throw copper coins to the people. I was impressed. We did not use currency in our village, only barter, and even a copper coin seemed the height of luxury.
We set out, my father guiding the ox, I sitting in the wagon atop the bed of our merchandise. At first the forest looked no different. The vegetation grew lusher as we crossed a river, than more parklike and open. By midafternoon the trees were so scattered so I could see many miles in front of me. The openness made me feel strange and small. I had never been out of the trees before.
In late afternoon I saw a dark hump lying far ahead...Karistanapool. I was so excited I could barely sit still. The gate-guards waved us through into the city, and my eyes went wide, taking in the wonders. Over here, a magician performing tricks with bowls of colored fire; there, a weaver selling bolts of fluttering cloth; in front of us a shaggy, long-legged beast with two humps on its back that I later learned was called a camel. Crowds to the left and crowds to the right, the smell of roasting meat, animal dung, expensive perfume. Ahead of us walked foreigners with skin like cinnamon and eyes like emeralds; and behind us a tame elephant with a miniature hut on its back!
My father noticed me staring and laughed good-naturedly. "Don't gawk so much. After a few days here, you will be well used to such sites."
I continued to stare as we entered the bazaar where my father had his contacts. Suddenly I heard a deep, brassy, melodious sound. It was the first time I had ever heard a royal trumpet, for the only musical instruments we had in our village were flutes and drums. "Make way! Make way for the Akkidri, the chosen of Ylangaz, the warrior-wives of the God-King!"
The crowd stood back, lining each side of the road, and my father pulled his wagon aside. From my perch on top I had an excellent view.
A dozen fierce haxtos marched solemnly up the street with mincing steps that might have looked ridiculous if they were not the mounts of the Akkidri. The warrior-wives rode these fierce, flightless birds into battle, for horses were unknown in our part of the world. They had massive hooked beaks and were more than capable of disemboweling a man with the sharp, curved claws on their inner toes. They were also notoriously hard to control, their riders needing to bond with them as chicks to have any hope of taming them, so they were used only by the God-King's finest warriors.
But fierce as the haxtos were, the Akkidri were fiercer. They were not the actual wives of the God-King, for he had a sister-wife and a passel of concubines, but were blessed by Ylangaz the sun goddess to protect him as his personal guard. They were dark and polished as ebony, each naked but for plates of gold metal over their breasts and loins; feathers plumed from their helms like puffs of colored smoke. Each Akkidri carried a round polished shield and wore a longsword strapped to her waist. The crowd grew respectfully silent as they passed, though little gasps and exclamations could be heard.
When the parade passed the crowd broke up, leaving awed whispers in its wake. "What did you think of that, Pumpkinseed?" my father said, using my nickname. "There go the personal guard of the God-King. Surely you will not see such a site again!"
I felt feverish, dazed, excited all at once. I blurted the first thing that came into my mind. "Papa, I want to be one."
What happened next is very important in the history of my life. Among my people it was a serious thing for a child--who is thought to be incapable of deceit or presentiment--to express a wish to serve the sun goddess. Thusly, my father did not scold me, or dissuade me, or laugh at my outburst. Instead, he took me to the temple of Ylangaz where we might find out if my desire was a true calling.
The temple dazzled me as much as the Akkidri had, for inside it was paved with white marble. The gilded symbol of the goddess hung in midair, where a beam of light struck it from the ceiling. Beneath this burned a sacred fire fueled by fragrant wood. My father explained what had happened to the acolytes, and they went to fetch the high priestess.
She was a tall women in a long white robe. A dot of gold paint winked light from her forehead like a tiny sun. "What is your name child?"
"Jozhande," I answered. "Your Grace," I amended.
"Do you know the true nature of what you desire?" she said seriously.
I was confused. Her eyes bored into me like those of a forest asp. "I don't know," I said truthfully. "I only know I want. Please, can I be a warrior-woman like the God-King's guard?"
She laughed and rubbed my short, woolly hair. "We shall see." Then, to my father, "We have to keep your daughter here overnight and give her the dream-drink, so we may know for sure. The goddess will tell her if the portent in true."
So my father left me there, with admonitions to be good and not vex the priestesses too strongly. They took me below the main floor into a chamber that smelled of myrrh and sandalwood. It was early evening by then, so they gave me the dream-drink and left me alone in a stone chamber on a bed of soft animal skins. I soon dropped off to sleep.
What do you think I dreamed? Ylangaz herself came down from the sky in her robes of gold to welcome me as a warrior, and in a fabulous montage I had many adventures fighting alongside my sister warriors. Dazzled by my journey, the Akkidri, the city itself, it is no coincidence that I dreamed as I did.
Now I wonder if my dream wasn't so far off the mark, save for the fact I now ride a horse and not a temperamental haxto. But I am getting ahead of myself again.
The next day I spoke my dream and the priestesses told my father the news. After I had my first menses, the priestesses would come for me and take me back to the city, where I would be initiated within their ranks. It was one of the highest honors of our land to be chosen for the Akkidri, and that it happened to a child in our family, who were from a backwater village no one had ever heard of, was a cause for celebration. When my father and I returned home my parents started planning my induction feast, an affair for the whole village that would include roasted goat, sweet tubers and rice, and gifts of feather cloaks, ivory beads, livestock, and decorated pots and baskets. Every wish of mine was granted, no comfort denied; I got to wear a spot of gold paint on my forehead and received garlands of fresh flowers every day.
It was inevitable that all the attention focused on me made some of my brothers and sisters jealous.
It was also inevitable that some acted on it.
My half-brother Lgoti approached me a tenday before my going-away party as I was gathering some sweet tubers from the garden. We were both well away from the village and hidden in the trees. "Going away soon, aren't you," he said.
I did not like his tone and stayed alert for tricks. He was the son of my father's first wife and a sly bully a year older than myself. He liked to throw stones at the chickens and club the slow-moving rock lizards for no other reason than to watch their brains splatter. I tried to affect a superior look. "It is as the goddess wills." That was the standard reply the priestesses in the temple had for everything, and I thought to imitate it as I would soon be joining their ranks.
"Do you know what the priestesses will do to you in their rites?" he asked.
I had total faith in the priestesses. They had treated me graciously the night I had spent in the temple. "You are trying to scare me," I said. "You are jealous!"
He spat. "I am not. I have no reason to be. Boys can't join the Akkidri."
I still suspected he was. "You are wrong. The priestesses would not hurt me."
"Oh yes they would. They will cut off your *kili* and throw it into the flames to burn!"
I stared at him in confusion. I did not know what a *kili* was.
"Don't you know what a *kili* is?" he said. I shook my head no, ashamed to admit it. "There," he said in exasperation, pointing. "Between your legs, Jozhande. In your secret place. Your *kili* is there."
I was angry by now, thinking he made a fool of me. I probed myself between the thighs, feeling my sparse, downy hair and pubic lips, the concavity of my vagina. This was all I knew of my sex. I knew adult men and women used these organs to make children, but I had never been interested enough to examine my own. "You lie. There's nothing here."
"Look." He wore a shard of mirror on a thong around his neck as a pendant, and unlooped it and handed it to me. "Look carefully, and you will see it."
I had indulged in sex-play with my brothers and sisters before, of course, but it had been only play. Now it seemed there was something risky about it, a new dimension I did not fully understand. But still, I was determined to prove him wrong, to stop him from making fun of me. I squatted in a patch of sunlight, spreading my knees, and held the mirror to my crotch in one hand while I opened myself with the other.
I had never done this before and the sight shocked me. My pubic lips were long and puffy, rimmed with fine, curly hairs. They formed the shape of an arrowhead and were a dark pinkish-plum in color, wrinkled like a dried fruit, yet felt soft and slick. I poked my finger around, but nothing was lurking in the damp folds. I even opened up my vagina and poked a finger in, but felt nothing but walls of thick muscle. Lgoti must be lying, I decided.
However, the probing began to stimulate me strangely. It felt very pleasurable, far more stimulating than my previous rubs and pats. The sensations seemed to be localized towards the front, near my urethra. I pinched the sensitive area and felt a jolt of pleasure so intense it felt more like pain. I peeled the folds of skin back and saw a swollen little nub like a pearl, glistening as if oiled. It was loosely attached enough to roll in my fingers like a stone, but I dared not, for I thought the sensations just might kill me!
"That," said Lgoti, "is your *kili.* Every girl has one, as every boy has a *pottu.* That's why men and women lie together, to give one another pleasure with their bodies."
"It feels...strange," I whispered. I was amazed that such a part of myself existed and that it had a name. I had always known pleasure when I touched or rubbed myself, but never in this direct, deliberate way. And the priestesses wanted to cut it off?
"You aren't doing it right," he said in his familiar insufferable tone. "Here, let me help you."
There was something improper about this, but I was so fascinated I dared not correct him. He wet his fingers in his mouth and placed them on my *kili.* They started to do a little dance, half-drumming, half rubbing. My clumsy probing had been nothing like this! I gasped, my heart thundering in my chest. "What are you doing?"
"I'm only showing you the proper way," he said with a smirk. My hips started to jerk. Without warning, he grabbed the shallow cup of my breast and sucked hard on the wide, flat nipple.
"Lgoti!" I squealed.
"Mmm-mm," he said, and the vibration of his lips sent a new delight through me. With amazement I saw his boyish *pottu* stick out straight, stiff as a finger. Was he going to pee on me?
But we were on the soft grass by then, and I was too transfixed to protest. He squeezed my nipples hard; then, without warning, he thrust his stiff *pottu* deep inside me. I was too astonished to cry out. Then he began moving it back and forth. I felt something tear within me, not a big pain but a pain nonetheless, then came the heavenly scrape of the tip of his *pottu* against me deep inside, and just as suddenly, he was outside of me, a long arc of white liquid shooting from his organ to dampen the soil.
I felt like I was on fire, my nerves raw and jangling. "What was that?" I yelped.
"It was seed," he said solemnly. "Men use it to make children." He wiped himself nonchalantly.
It took me a few seconds to realize what had happened. Lgoti had taken my virginity! I could never join the Akkidri now. The warrior-wives had to be virgin, untouched by any man. If they found out about Lgoti, I would bring shame on my family and on my whole village!
Had Lgoti known of this, and acted out of jealous spite? Perhaps. Later I found out he did not lie; all warrior-wives received a clitorectomy at their initiation into the order, forsaking sexual pleasure in order to better serve their King. Now I am very glad I did not become an Akkidri. But back then, I felt devastated.
A little bit of blood trickled out of my vagina. I dried it with a tuft of grass. I was almost in tears. "Go away, Lgoti."
He shrugged and left me.
The next few days passed in a storm of remorse for me. I kept to myself and tried to avoid my family and friends. What was I going to do? If I told my family what happened, shame would fall on me because of what I had let happen; if I went through with it, the priestesses would find me out, and there would be censure and disgrace for my family. I thought of running away but knew no one outside the village. I loved life too much to kill myself.
In the end I decided that if a dream had gotten me into this mess, a dream would get me out of it.
That night I lay awake, concocting a likely story as my brothers and sisters slept around me.
In the morning, I rubbed salt in my eyes to make tears and went to see my mother. Pretending I was bawling, I said, "Mama, I had a terrible dream! The goddess came to me and told me I wasn't strong enough to be an Akkidri. She said she didn't want me!"
Nothing of the sort happened, of course. I lied, and when I lied, I betrayed the childish faith I had kept since birth...for if it was so easy to convince my parents, how much easier it must have been for the priests and priestesses to convince the populace to serve their ends.
The only faith I hold these days is in myself, not in any god or goddess.
But at the time, the news was received with regret and a certain kind of forbearance. The goddess knew what was best. Instead of shame I was given its obverse, the noble emotion of pity, and in some ways that was worse. I thought I could go back to my carefree childish life, but I was mistaken. The deception weighed on me. I grew listless, lost weight. My parents attributed it to disappointment. With the onset of my menses I was a true woman, and if I was not to be an Akkidri, then I would have to learn another occupation. My father had distant relatives in another village which had a fine school for healers. They decided to send me there, in part because they thought the change would do me good.
For five years I studied herbs and healing. I caught on quickly and was very good. Dharzain--the village--was much larger than Moambe, practically a small city. I had to leave off my apron and wear foreign garments, shirts and trousers for their freedom of movement. Many foreigners came to the school as pupils and patients, and one of them was a crippled soldier who first taught me the art of swordplay. My desire to be a warrior had not left me. I learned other tricks from other mercenaries who passed through. At the age of eighteen, I cut short my healer's training to go off with them, and soon after that I fought in my first campaign. I often think, from time to time, of what my life would have been like as an Akkidri. But not too hard.
Shadow shifted in my arms, his hair a springy pillow on my chest. "I've heard those virgin warrior-women have secret ways of satisfying themselves," he said. "Double-headed phalluses, special tongue techniques, and all that."
"No doubt they do," I said, growing sleepy. My eyelids drooped. "When will you tell me the story of your life, Shadow?"
"Can a shadow be said to have a life?" he said, and kissed me lightly on the lips.
I fell asleep not long after.
I woke with a start. Shadow's side of the bed was rumpled, but he was not there. Moonlight poured in through the window, creating a stripe through the crack in the curtain. I sat up. My nose told me Shadow had not gone long, for I still smelled his scent. Every man has a different smell, depending on his health and age, and his was slightly sweet yet musty, like cut hay in the rain. I thought he might have gotten up to relieve himself, but his clothes still hung on the hook.
I heard the creak of the gate as it opened and shut. What was he up to? While he might slip off naked to the outhouse, in the chill of night there was no way he would go without his cloak.
I had given Shadow my trust, but he kept a dangerous profession, and I thought it was better to follow him than be nastily surprised in the morning. My instincts had saved my life on many occasions. So I dressed quickly, took up a long knife--a sword being too obvious--and left the cottage intending to track him.
Wolfmoon was waxing, giving ample illumination. My breath made chill, ghostly clouds as I used my nose and my ears. Though Shadow was a scout and used to moving silently we were still in a village, and sure enough, the stray bark of a dog alerted me to his direction. The scent of crushed sage led me further. It wasn't long before I began to hear him. A few times I even glimpsed him in the moonlight, a shapeless form that took care to stay hidden in the junipers.
We were climbing up the hillside by then, past clumps of coarse grass and crumbling stone ledges. The village was far below me while the constellations burned above...the phoenix, the battle-ax, the wheel...violet-white Chazhani, the traveler's friend, at the hub of its thirteen spokes...all of them like distant celebrants with their lanterns, lighting the way for a god's feast. With a pang of nostalgia I thought of my own forgotten feast. What was Lgoti doing now? Had he found a wife to tease and torment?
Suddenly I heard the shrill bleat of a goat, then chaotic rustling noises as the rest of the herd scattered. I drew my knife and crept silently towards the disturbance. No twigs broke, no grass rustled beneath my soft-booted feet. Then came sounds of an animal feeding: wet slaps and sucks, then pops as the limbs were disjointed.
Had the wolf come back, and Shadow was talking with him? If so, why meet him cold and naked?
I circled the noise, approaching the creature from uphill where it would be at a disadvantage. Or, if it was the timid sort, flee, for even powerful predators may run rather than confront an unknown enemy.
I crept around a tree and hid behind a large boulder. Slowly I raised my head. Steam rose from the gutted carcass, burnished to a frosty silver in the moonlight. Crouched there, feeding, was a shaggy black predator unlike any creature I had ever seen. It had the stance and mien of a wolf, but no wolf had long legs that bent like a man's, or paws that rooted purposefully in its prey's open guts. It was so manlike that, despite my shock, a chord was struck in me, for something in its posture was very familiar...
Dear gods, no, not that.
I must have made some noise, for the thing left off its feasting and whirled to look at me, hackles raised in agitation. Sharp, white teeth parted in a snarl, but all I saw was the distorted beauty of Shadow's face.
I raised my knife.
"Don't." It was Shadow's voice, hoarse but recognizable. "It is I. Lower your knife. I will not hurt you."
"What manner of curse is this?" I gasped.
"You are the curse, that you have seen me in this form!" His eyes kept flicked back to the bloody disarray of his meal, as if the pull of it was too strong for him to resist.
"I...I didn't know," I stammered. "I heard you leave, and wondered where you went." I shook my head, mind reeling at the true nature of what I had slept with. Did he change that night we had spent at the hot springs, too? *When Wolfmoon is in the sky, I can talk to wolves.* He told me that himself. How was I to know that it was because he *was* a wolf by nature?
"And now you know," he said. As if no longer able to restrain himself, he snatched a piece of meat and gulped it with an expression of mingled shame and fierce ecstasy. The eyes of a wolf burned lambent amber from the sharp, altered planes of his face. "Tell no one about this," he growled. "In this land, form-shifters are burned alive." He turned his attention back to the horrid feast. "We will talk in the morning."
I fled down the hillside, leaving my knife and cloak behind.
I entertained thoughts of leaving during the night, but I could not do that to a friend, especially one I had given my word to. I shivered, alone, in the flower-painted bed, as the moonlight slanted through the window, then disappeared. A false dawn bloomed outside the window and the first bird began to sing.
I heard the cottage door creak. I had slept fitfully during the night, awaiting this moment. Shadow sat huddled before the fire in my cloak, shivering, rinsing his arms and face with warm water from the copper kettle. The beast had gone. He looked no different from the playful lover I had known. But from the door to the fire lay a trail of dark hair, and the water Shadow had washed in had a faint rusty hue.
He looked up when he saw me come, then down again very quickly.
I sat next to him on the braided hearthrug, I was determined not to feel afraid or repulsed. He smelled like the outdoors, crushed grass and musky animal scent and the lingering odor of blood. "I thought you would have left," he said quietly.
"I never break my word," I said. I broke a piece of leftover bread in half to share with him, but he declined. "What is this affliction, Shadow? Can it not be cured?"
He went so quiet I thought I had said something wrong. When I turned to ask, meeting his eyes, I saw the flames glimmer briefly in the wetness there.
"It is a curse, and it is not a curse," he said evenly. "When Wolfmoon is young, I speak to the wolves, nothing more. As it grows fuller, I grow more bestial, more wild. At its fullest, I am indistinguishable from a natural wolf. The transformation fades as the moon wanes, until I am a normal man again. I am a man always in my mind. But I am not always in control of my impulses. " He took up the washrag again and began scrubbing his arms. "Sometimes, I must kill."
"Do you kill humans?" I said in a low voice, terrified of what I might hear.
"Sometimes. But only my enemies. Friends have nothing to fear." He stared again into the fire. "When I was younger---very young, only a few years older than you, my lady, when your dreams of glory were spoiled--a horrible act was committed against me by the lord of our land. Your origins were humble, but mine were even lower: I was a peasant, the lowest of the low, with the least recourse to justice. Lykaon saved me from death and gave me a vengeance, as wolves avenge a packmate who has been killed. But there was a price, and it is the animal in my nature.
"It is easy for me to hide this affliction from others. Even with the rebels I am never more than ten days in the same place, and taking on a wolf's form has its advantages in scouting and spying. No one has ever questioned my wanderings. No one has ever found out, until now," he said, with a significant look. "You see why I asked you to go into Obn Dhregni. I am the one who should have gone, but I couldn't take the risk of transforming in the city. So I tricked you, like a thief, to take my place, while telling the others I went instead--"
"It's all right," I said quickly, laying a hand on his arm.
"No! I am ashamed. I used deceit. You don't have to do this. I release you from your promise. I--"
"Listen to me," I said fiercely. "I go because I want to go, because I want to help you. A god's curse changes nothing. I am a mercenary, a warrior. I make my own path and you are not answerable for it. And I will say nothing. Your secret is safe with me."
I kissed him then, on the mouth that torn the goat apart the night before, because it was the only thing I could do. After I had failed in my promises to Ylangaz, I had sworn never to break another promise again.
On to Chapter 5
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