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Authors: Kacy Barnett-Gramckow

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BOOK: He Who Lifts the Skies
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“But you
have
taken compensation from other tribes,” Shem interposed calmly, raising his dark eyebrows. “And they—all of them—are kindred tribes. They are your own cousins, the children of my brothers.”

Unable to argue with him, Neshar, Mattan, and Bachan
lowered their eyes. Meshek stood and marched off, as if he couldn’t endure the company of his horsemen-sons. Exchanging a look with I’ma-Annah, Shem said, “We’ll discuss these matters tomorrow. Eat. I’ll reason with your father later, for your mother’s sake.”

As Keren’s brothers finished their food, one of their companions returned from the edge of the encampment. He moved quietly, his expression wary, reserved. His dark brown eyes flicked here and there, missing nothing, not even Keren’s eyes. He didn’t blink or jump, but he studied her and Sharah solemnly, then turned to Neshar, who introduced him to Shem. “Father of my Fathers, this is Zehker, one of our friends.”

“Zehker.” Shem smiled. “Which tribe are you from?”

Zehker lowered his head. “My father … is of the sons of Yepheth.”

His answer was as wary as his demeanor.
He didn’t say his father’s name, as most men do
, Keren thought, baffled, watching Zehker as he bowed and retreated slightly.
And he looks like some wild creature, ready to run away
.

“That’s the most I’ve heard Zehker say in three days,” Neshar told Shem, amused.

“He
is
like my brother Yepheth,” Shem said, looking as mystified as Keren felt.

“When Yepheth decides to speak, you can be sure he means every word that falls from his lips,” I’ma-Annah added, smiling, obviously remembering her brother-in-law fondly. “Does anyone have news of him, and his beloved Ghinnah?”

“They’re visiting the tribes of their children in the mountains to the distant west,” Bachan informed I’ma-Annah. “We’ve heard rumors that they will eventually come down to the plains to live, but then, we hear many rumors.”

As they talked, Meshek returned. With an apologetic glance toward Shem and I’ma-Annah, he sat down again. Keren held her breath; her brothers fell silent.

Meshek spoke tersely. “We won’t discuss that Nimr-Rada. And I won’t disown you if you’ll come with us to greet your mother.” Glaring at his sons, his eyes reddening, Meshek said, “You can’t begin to comprehend the sorrow you’ve inflicted upon us. Even so, if you come with us for a few days …”

“We’ll come,” Neshar agreed hastily, without consulting the others. “I give you my word.” Mattan and Bachan nodded, relaxing suddenly. I’ma-Annah sighed. Everyone looked relieved.

Watching them, Keren felt like singing for joy. Her lost brothers—three of them at least—were returning to the mountains to visit their mother.
Perhaps they’ll live with us
, Keren thought, gleefully hugging herself, trying to imagine the look on Chaciydah’s face when they returned.

Unexpectedly, Tsereth spoke with perfect teasing lightness. “Well, I thought I’d dance on my wedding day, but everyone looks as if it’s the end of a terrible hunting trip. I should feel insulted.”

“I’ll dance with you!” Keren burst out, unthinking. Instantly, everyone looked at her. Embarrassed, she covered her mouth. Everyone laughed except the silent Zehker. He looked away.

Finished with his evening meal, Zehker watched Neshar, Mattan, Bachan, and the others as they danced to the rhythms of the flutes, chimes, and drums. Their earlier
animosity seemed to evaporate as they moved through an intricate stepping dance around the fire.
They’ve forgotten I exist
, Zehker decided, satisfied. He preferred to remain unnoticed and unheard, hidden by the shadows. Even with the assurances of Shem, their First Father, Zehker didn’t feel safe in the encampment. He felt like prey.

I’ll insist that we keep watch tonight
, he thought.
Even if I’m the only one alert enough to keep it
.

Cautiously, Zehker reached for some soft wheat cakes, dried fruits, and a generous helping of roasted meat. He wasn’t taking food for himself, but for his friend, Lawkham, who had stayed at the edge of the encampment to tend the horses. By now, Lawkham was probably digging through their supplies, searching for some hidden packet of dried meat and parched grain cakes, certain he’d been forgotten.

Heaping Lawkham’s food in a red-and-black glazed clay bowl, Zehker glanced at the dancers, watching the two young sisters of Neshar, Mattan, and Bachan. The older child was extraordinary, with her no-color skin and hair. She danced with all the poise and grace of an adult. But the younger girl surpassed her remarkable no-color sister by the pure joy revealed in her every step, her smile, and her shockingly pale eyes. She was full of life. Even from his place in the shadows, Zehker heard her laughing.

She’s a truly happy child
, Zehker thought, watching the girl until the other dancers obscured her.
Was I as happy when I was young? I don’t remember. But it doesn’t matter
.

Brooding, Zehker strode to the western edge of the encampment, where Lawkham had started a small, neatly banked fire.

“There you are!” Lawkham exclaimed, his eyes and teeth gleaming in the firelight. Holding up a barklike
chunk of dried meat, he said, “I was bracing myself to eat one of these rocks, but forget that now. What did you find?”

Taking refuge in his usual silence, Zehker thrust the bowl at Lawkham and sat beside the fire. Lawkham grinned and plopped down next to him, shoving the despised chunk of dried meat into a leather pouch. Tearing into a soft wheat cake, then a slice of roast, Lawkham talked between bites.

“Now, if you were a more sociable person, Zehker, you would tell me that the others are all dancing and singing and enjoying themselves. The bride is lovely, of course, but her family is less than pleased to see us. In fact, you’re sure that they’d like to beat us bloody and roast our horses for the next feast tomorrow. Am I right?”

“Perhaps.”

Lawkham chuckled. “Did Neshar or Mattan or Bachan—any of them—think to tell their relatives that we brought gifts to celebrate the wedding?”

“No.”

“Of course not,” Lawkham agreed placidly. “Why should the four of you remember your manners if I’m not there to prompt you? Did
you
say anything at all?”

“Eight words.”

Lawkham blinked, looking startled. “Eight? Who managed to pour oil down your throat? Some pretty girl?”

“No.”

“I forgot,” Lawkham sighed. “How foolish of me. You consider it too dangerous to flirt. I pity your future wife, whoever she is. She’s simply going to have to read your mind.” Picking at the dried berries, he asked, “How long are we going to stay?”

“We’re going to visit their mother,” said Zehker, allowing Lawkham to draw his own conclusions.

“Ah.” Lawkham rocked backward slightly, chewing the berries. “So much for hunting. We’ll be chopping wood instead. At least that’s what I’d expect to do if I were visiting my mother in the mountains. Hearing all this from you now, Zehker, am I to believe that our three comrades weren’t disowned completely?”

“Not completely.”

“Hmph. It might have been easier if they’d been disowned.” Lawkham gnawed at the roasted meat. “Their family will grieve over their separation in the spring.”

“Perhaps,” Zehker agreed.
But at least they have a family to return to
.

Finished with his food, Lawkham stared at the black-and-red-patterned clay bowl and raised his eyebrows approvingly, expertly, for he was the son of a potter. “Beautiful bowl. Very well made. Your choice?”

“It was there.”

“Of course. It was simply there, so you snatched it. You could care less that it’s wonderfully made. You’re the sort who should only use unbreakable wooden dishes that are just
there
. I’ll have to warn your poor wife—if you ever find one.” Lawkham laughed, seeming amused by the idea of Zehker’s eventual marriage.

Zehker ignored his teasing. The thought of marrying and having a family chilled Zehker.
No
, he told himself firmly.
It’s safer to be alone
.

“You aren’t actually going to speak to them,” Khuldah scoffed, daring Sharah as they made their way toward the western edge of the encampment. Keren followed them, quivering inwardly. It was very bold of Sharah to
challenge Khuldah to go on this unapproved visit to their horsemen-brothers. None of the other girls would go, fearing their parents would be angry.

Defiant, sweeping her glistening, colorless hair away from her face, Sharah said, “They’re my brothers. Why shouldn’t I visit them?”

“Because even a brother can become a husband!” Khuldah snapped. “You know that. And our parents won’t be happy to hear that we’ve been visiting them on our own.”

“Then why are you coming with us if you’re so worried?” Sharah stared at Khuldah, her pale eyes shining, hardening.

Through past experience, Keren knew that Sharah was glorying in this little triumph over Khuldah. Neither girl would retreat, but Khuldah was definitely following Sharah against her will.

“I am worried,” Khuldah admitted, lifting her squared chin, returning Sharah’s stare. “But I’m not a coward. And I want to hear your reply when your brothers ask why you’ve come visiting.”

Sharah merely smiled, never missing a step. Keren shivered, thinking,
I shouldn’t go with them. Father will be angry, and I don’t want him to be angry with me
. She hesitated, but Sharah grabbed her arm.

Tossing her head and looking down her nose at the indignant Khuldah, Sharah said, “I’m glad my little sister isn’t some silly fret-over-nothing girl.”

Hearing this, Keren felt trapped. If she ran back to the encampment, Sharah would punish her severely. It would be safer to face her father’s wrath later. By now they were at the edge of the encampment, approaching the hearth used by the horsemen. Their brothers and the other two young men were tending their horses, combing their
black-and-tawny coats and rubbing a thick yellow salve into their black hooves.

Bachan saw Sharah first and grinned, leaning over to backhand Neshar. The instant Neshar saw Sharah, Keren, and Khuldah, he raised an eyebrow.

You aren’t happy to see us
, Keren thought, dismayed.
You look just like Father when he’s angry
.

Neshar ran one hand over his long, straight black hair, which was loose and damp from being scrubbed. The other four young men were also freshly scrubbed and shaved, for they had spent the morning hunting. I’ma-Annah and Tsereth’s mother were already cleaning, trussing, and seasoning the fat partridges and hares the young horsemen had caught for their evening meal. And Neshar clearly believed that Sharah and Keren and Khuldah should be in the encampment helping them.

“Why are you here?” Neshar was so rude that one of his friends, a lean man with heavy black curls and a wonderfully expressive face, rolled his dark eyes in mock disgust. But the other young man, Zehker, simply watched them, unmoving as a piece of carved wood.

Sharah answered Neshar lightly, smiling. “We didn’t think you’d mind. It’s just that our little sister wanted very much to see your horses, but she’s too shy to ask.” As she spoke, Sharah dug her fingers into Keren’s arm, warning her to be silent.

Neshar eyed Keren, displeased. Keren’s palms were sweating. She longed to hide but kept still. Leaning down, Neshar compelled her to look at him. “Is this true, my sister?”

Keren nodded, swallowing hard, unable to speak. The black-curled young man sidled up to Neshar and murmured something to him. Neshar glanced at him, then
back at Keren, as if making a decision. “Come then.” He beckoned Keren, lifting his chin. “I doubt my horse will bite you if we’re careful.”

The horse is going to bite me
, Keren thought,
because I’ve lied. Then Father will be angry, and I’ll be punished. I hate you, Sharah!
Ducking her head, she followed Neshar to his handsome, round-bellied horse, which was tethered to a stout peg half buried in the ground. The horse was even larger than Keren had believed.
Perhaps I’ll be sick and die before I’m trampled
, she thought, shaking.

BOOK: He Who Lifts the Skies
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