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Authors: Kacy Barnett-Gramckow

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BOOK: He Who Lifts the Skies
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“He forgets that he married a madwoman,” I’ma-Annah replied, provoking quiet smiles. “Our Ancient One, Noakh, told me the next day. I didn’t want to believe that this Great Destruction could happen. And yet, I knew it was true. The earth itself was as full of tremors of violence as the creatures who lived upon it. And the Most High, whom I love, was utterly scorned by everyone but those in the Lodge of Noakh.

“Later, I tried to warn my sisters of the coming destruction—as Father Noakh had been warning everyone he met for years upon years. But like everyone else, my sisters thought I was a fool, as our Noakh was considered a fool.” I’ma-Annah sighed. “I often think of my sisters. I wish they had listened to our warnings. But they were like everyone else alive at that time—full of scorn and malice:
evil
. And when the waters poured over the broken earth,
they were swept away. They wouldn’t listen. They did not believe.”

“Believe us now,” Shem urged them all, including Keren’s horsemen-brothers and their companions. “Believe us when we say that if there is a next Great Destruction, then according to the Most High, it will not be by water. I fear it will be by fire, and I pray it will never come to the children of my children. I beg you and the generations to follow: Remember the love of the Most High! He longs for the companionship of His children, which you are—all of you! Be faithful to Him, and He will protect you as He protected the Father of your Fathers, our Noakh, and everyone in the Lodge of Noakh.”

Somberly, Keren waited to hear more, but Shem reminded everyone that they were at a wedding; they must dance and celebrate their lives before the Most High. To encourage them, he pulled out his flute to play, promising them more stories later.

Much later, when everyone was tired and preparing for sleep, Keren hugged I’ma-Annah and Shem, saying, “When I’m very old, I pray I’ll be able to tell stories to the children of my children as wonderfully as you do.”

To Keren’s dismay, Shem flinched visibly, and an endless sorrow seemed to drop upon him like the largest stone in the world. He glanced at I’ma-Annah, as if he longed to say something to her, but she turned away quickly, as if she couldn’t endure what she might hear.

Why did my words cause them such grief?
Keren was afraid to ask.

Four

“YOU ALWAYS GET TO sit in front,” Sharah grumbled to Keren as they rode astride Neshar’s horse. “You can’t say that Neshar doesn’t favor you; he does and it’s unfair!”

Keren hesitated, watching the horse’s alert dark ears flick back toward her.
You’re listening
, Keren thought to the horse, combing her fingers through its rough, dark mane.
I hope Neshar isn’t listening; he’d be angry
. She waited, but Neshar continued ahead on foot, the leather reins of the horse looped through his lean fingers.

Glancing back at Sharah, Keren whispered, “If you weren’t so unhappy all the time, and if you’d think of others before yourself, then perhaps they’d like you more. Anyway, Neshar lets me sit in front because I’m shorter. He told you so.”

“That’s his excuse,” Sharah sniffed. “You’re not that
much shorter; he just likes you more. Everyone does.” As an afterthought—or an insult—Sharah added, “Even the horses like you more.”

Exasperated, Keren hushed. Trying to reason with Sharah was like talking to a stone carving. She looked ahead at the others. Shem, Meshek, and Eliyshama were leading the way up the cold, rocky slopes, with I’ma-Annah and Tsereth following, all of them well wrapped in layers of leather, wool, and fur. They were purposeful and eager despite their bulky clothes and traveling packs, for they expected to reach the Lodge of the Ancient Ones this evening.
And I get to stay there for the winter
, Keren thought, satisfied.
I hope my I’ma is feeling better. She will be so glad to seen Neshar and Mattan and Bachan, though the other two may frighten her at first. Especially Zehker
.

Keren would have turned to look back at Zehker, but Sharah was blocking her view.
I haven’t seen you smile once these past two weeks
, Keren told Zehker in her thoughts.
Even my father smiles at least once a day. Are you always sad? Or do you dislike everything so much that you find no reason to smile?

Keren gasped, startled by Sharah’s fingers suddenly digging into her ribs.

“Now we’ll have to endure the whole winter, working for the Ancient Ones,” Sharah said, aggrieved. “I should have begged to stay with our I’ma’s cousins.”

They wouldn’t have you
, Keren thought. Aloud, she said, “But you were always arguing with Khuldah. You should be more friendly.”

“Don’t lecture me, stupid!” Sharah gouged Keren’s ribs again. “You don’t understand anything.”

Then you shouldn’t talk to me, if I’m so stupid
, Keren decided, pressing her lips together hard.
How I wish you could be happy, Sharah. My life would be so much easier
.

She maintained a near-perfect silence toward her sister throughout the afternoon. Gradually the terrain became familiar, and she saw two thin columns of gray-blue smoke rising from beyond the next thickly forested slope. “We’re almost there,” she said aloud.

Looking over his shoulder at her, Neshar said, “So I see. You’ve missed this place?”

“Very much,” she answered, smiling.

“I suppose you would; it’s been your only home.”

Wounded by his apparent disdain, Keren said, “I’ve always been happy here. I love visiting the Ancient Ones.”

Neshar answered with a shrug. Seated behind her, Sharah cackled softly. “See? You’re the only person beneath the blue heavens who loves to visit here.”

Keren lowered her head, refusing to speak. Her elation—and her secret hope that her brothers would stay beyond winter—vanished.
I’ma will be so sad when my brothers leave us again
.

They rode up the final incline toward the lodge of the Ancient Ones, then Neshar brought the horse to a standstill in front of the dwelling. Noakh and Naomi had already emerged to welcome them, but Chaciydah stood quietly in the doorway. Until she spied Neshar. Laughing, she ran to hug him. Then, seeing Mattan and Bachan, she covered her face with her hands and wept.

Distressed by her mother’s tears, Keren swiped the tears from her own face and prepared to descend from the horse. Sharah was already scrambling down, seeming unaffected by their mother’s emotional turmoil.

How can you not cry?
Keren wondered to Sharah, amazed and indignant. Distracted, she slid off the horse and tumbled flat on her face against the cold, damp earth, giving a yelp of pain. Pressing her hands to her face, she
struggled to sit up. Someone grabbed her arms to steady her. I’ma-Annah. And Tsereth was pulling her hands away from her bleeding mouth. Lawkham crouched beside them, obviously concerned.

“Little one, let me see,” Tsereth pleaded.

“Ow! I bit my tongue.”

“Is that all?” Lawkham’s cheerful, teasing voice lifted over Keren’s pain. “Why, that’s nothing; you have to bite your tongue every time you to talk to your sister.”

Keren laughed, then winced. She covered her mouth with her hand again, hating the acrid taste of the blood.

“Here.” One low, abrupt word made Keren turn and look up. Zehker leaned toward Keren, his smooth brown face expressionless as he offered her a small, clean piece of soft leather. She stared at him, bewildered.

Tsereth, practical as always, took it and pressed it to Keren’s bleeding mouth, thanking him. Zehker nodded silently, returning to the horses as if nothing had happened.

“You have no other injuries?” I’ma-Annah was asking.

Now the ancient I’ma-Naomi was beside them, peering down at Keren with a worried look. “Can you walk, Karan-child?”

“Her tongue is bleeding, and her chin is scraped, but they’ll heal quickly,” Tsereth told them. “Now, little one, let’s see if you can walk. We need to go clean the dirt off your face.”

Holding the soft piece of leather to her mouth, Keren stood. Her mother was now hugging Mattan and crying, while her other sons and her husband hovered about her uneasily. They hadn’t noticed Keren’s fall. Sighing, Keren turned to go into the lodge with Tsereth, Sharah, I’ma-Annah, and I’ma-Naomi. At the doorway, she glanced at
Zehker again, wishing she had thanked him for his help. She caught his eye for an instant, but he looked away.
As if he doesn’t want to see me
, Keren thought, feeling his rejection even more acutely than the wound in her mouth.

“I don’t think that Zehker likes you very much,” Sharah told Keren as they sat down inside the lodge. She sounded pleased.

Zehker unstrapped the thick leather bundles from his horse and piled them on the ground quickly, his nerves on edge. Everything about this place unsettled him.

No. He forced himself to be honest.
I’ve been uneasy ever since we entered the encampment. This First Father, this Shem, his presence, his kindness—he’s not what I expected. This entire family is more than I expected. More than I should consider. I think I’ll ask Neshar to allow me to leave before the snows set in. If I stay here—with them—until spring, I’ll go mad
. Grimacing inwardly, he thought,
I might even join the Ancient Ones in offering sacrifices to their Most High. What would our Ra-Anan say then? He’d say I’ve regressed. As if Ra-Anan’s way is any easier to bear
.

With an effort, Zehker pushed his dangerous thoughts into the darkest, most hidden portion of his mind, where they had hovered for twenty years. It was safer to ignore their existence. Swiftly he unloaded all the horses, covering each animal with a protective layer of fleece. Soon Lawkham was working beside him, rubbing the horses with a thick swatch of soft leather, crooning to them, irritating Zehker with his unending, good-natured noise.

All at once Lawkham slapped Zehker with the horse-scented swatch of leather, saying, “See there? You worried for nothing. The child’s perfectly fine—happy as ever.”

Suppressing a scowl, Zehker glanced toward the lodge. The youngest girl, Karan, or Keren—they called her both—had emerged from the doorway to visit her parents and brothers, who were still talking. The child’s face was clean; a reddened abrasion on her chin was the only evidence that she had fallen at all. Her expression was contented as usual—a sweet daydreamer’s face, untouched by fear or grief. And when her brother Eliyshama began to tease her, threatening to tickle her, she laughed and skittered away, coltishly thin and joyful.

I’m glad you aren’t hurt
, Zehker thought unwillingly, looking away from the child.
But how I envy you your joy
. With an effort he pushed away his renewed doubts, telling himself,
I’ll leave this place soon and never return
.

“Our reunion has gone better than I expected,” Neshar sighed into the darkness as he, his brothers, and their friends left the evening fire in the lodge to tend their horses.

“It has,” Bachan agreed, sounding pleased. “But I keep staring at the little ones. Who will believe we have such sisters?”

“We tell no one,” Neshar commanded firmly. “Not Kana or Miyka or Ra-Anan.”

“But they’re our own brothers,” Bachan argued, halting, his obstinate expression visible in the moonlight. “How can we not tell them?”

“And Ra-Anan will know soon enough whether we say anything to him or not,” Mattan objected, clearly defiant. “Nothing remains hidden from him for long.”

Comprehending the extent of Mattan’s loyalties to
Ra-Anan, Neshar bit down the traitorous, dangerous words that sprang to his lips. What Mattan had said was true: Ra-Anan, with his growing influence and his wealth of informants, would eventually hear of Sharah and Keren. And knowing Ra-Anan, he would find some way to benefit from his sisters’ unique attributes. They would be like weapons to him. Or pawns.

“Ra-Anan must not hear of our sisters from us. He will demand their presence in his courts, and our parents would never agree to part with them. It’s too dangerous, and our sisters are too young to serve in Ra-Anan’s schemes to please He-Who-Lifts-the-Skies. Therefore, I say that we let them spend their childhood in peace. We tell no one.”

BOOK: He Who Lifts the Skies
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