“Watch it, idiot—oh, it’s you,” Grenswald rumbled, sneering down at Camille with cracked dirty lips and blackened rotting teeth. Camille despised him out of principal being a hired hand of the High Court, but her distaste for his proximity was more profound than his presence alone. His muddy brown eyes lit up at the sight of her, and Camille was positive he recalled the first time they’d met.
She hadn’t been in Sierra Village long, and most of the villagers kept their distance but for fake pleasantries when they saw her behind the butcher’s counter.
Grenswald hadn’t been too keen on making her feel welcome, and when she’d tried to hide a small apple away for Lunci during her first Moon Tax, the fat oaf had dragged her outside to make an example of her disobedience. He’d bellowed to the townspeople about the foul, beastly nature of those who stole from the High Kingdom, screaming that no crime would go unpunished. He’d gotten seventeen lashes in before the head guard stepped in, and Camille still couldn’t believe she’d restrained herself from throttling the man.
“Grenswald,” Camille nodded curtly, scanning the wagon he’d filled to the brim with cartons of meats, bread, and vegetables: the best Sierra Village had to offer.
Before she could get around the behemoth, Grenswald grabbed her upper arm with his grubby sausage fingers. “What do you have for the Moon Tax today? It’s two cartons this month, and you better not be hidin’ goods from the High Court again.”
“You’re here two days early,” Camille said, breathing through her mouth as wave upon wave of his stench assaulted her nose. As politely as she could manage, Camille removed his grotesque hand and looked up into his beady brown eyes, making sure to keep the hatred writhing in her body under control. Neeko sidled in front of her and hissed, and Grenswald took a few clumsy steps away.
“If you pardon me, sir, I’ll go collect a hearty payment for you right now,” Camille said through clenched teeth.
His eyes roved her body crudely, before landing just below the cavity of her neckline. “That’s a pretty trinket you got there,” Grenswald said, reaching for the slim silver amulet hanging from her neck.
There was no thought to her motion as Camille’s flat palm surged up into Grenswald’s nose, the flat expanse of her hand connecting with a sickening crunch of cartilage. He stumbled back a few steps away from her, his eyes now streaming with tears of pain.
“Yow bw-ok muh noh,” Grenswald mumbled through a gurgle of blood and mucus.
“You’ve been warned,” Camille roared with fierce intent. An explosion of anger burst out of her throat as she watched the man’s pathetic retreat. Her entire body tingled with power, her muscles coiled and primed for attack.
“Don’t ever touch my necklace. Don’t even look at it.” She grabbed the amulet with one hand as the warm rush of blood pooled behind her eyes, her gaze becoming sharper and ready for any unexpected movement. He would not be allowed to lay a hand on her again, consequences be damned.
Grenswald’s eyes widened, a mixture of fear and surprise spreading like wildfire across his features. “You’re a…a…” he said, stumbling back to slam into his wagon with a loud thump.
“Keep your distance from me, understand?” Camille snapped at him as he clutched at his nose with one hand. He nodded slightly, wincing at the pain of movement, but he didn’t advance on her.
“Oh dear,” Peter said just behind Camille’s shoulder. She tensed at the sound of his voice, uncertain how he would react to what had just happened. There weren’t a lot of bystanders, but enough for Grenswald to have witnesses of her attack. The sharp surge of anger that had taken over eased slightly as a fissure of worry crept through the barrier of her walled-in emotion. “Did you slip and fall Grenswald?”
Camille eyed the bleeding oaf through squinted lashes. The hefty weight of his body pressed against his cart as though his legs no longer worked. She silently dared him to speak. Staring Camille straight in the eye, he nodded his head, the jowls of his neck shaking with the effort of movement.
“Well that won’t do, so sorry to have kept you waiting! I have a hearty payment for you, nothing so inconsequential as a trinket of little value,” Peter said, his chin angling toward Camille still gripping her necklace with stern ferocity. “It’s just a piece of tin and painted glass, anyways—no worthy value to you or the High King.” The old butcher shoved two cartons filled with bread, vegetables, and a bag of fresh meat into Grenswald’s cart before handing him a slightly tattered handkerchief from his pocket.
“For the mishap,” Peter said with a heartwarming smile, as though offering a token of good will to a man in need. He then took Camille by the shirtsleeve and steered her home.
Camille fingered the amulet as they walked, tracing her thumb over the single red ruby it held. Soldered into the metal were branches bent to create a perfect circle, while the back of amulet was stamped with undefined ancient symbols. She kept anticipating Peter’s reprimand for losing her temper with the king’s henchman, but it never came. Instead, Peter silently ushered Camille and Lunci inside his cabin and set a pot of water boiling as Camille slumped into a chair.
“Camille!” Lunci shouted, dancing in front of the hearth. “Guess what?”
Camille quirked a brow at him, dropping the amulet back beneath her shirt front. “What?”
“Papa said we get to celebrate Fόmhair!”
“What’s ‘Fόmhair?'” Camille asked, massaging her aching temples. It had been an eventful afternoon, more than she’d anticipated, and her body was paying for it.
“It’s the best holiday ever!” Lunci exclaimed, practically swooning. “So much food!”
“And when was this decided?” Camille asked, peering at Peter.
“After all these years, the only thing you remember is the food,” Peter chuckled, disregarding Camille’s question. “That isn’t all there is to Fόmhair, my dear boy.”
Peter disappeared down the short hall to the adjoining butchery, no doubt to grab whatever little options he’d set aside for them that evening.
“It’s truly the best holiday,” Lunci continued. “There’s mountains of food, as well as dancing and singing.”
“In truth, it’s a heathen’s celebration,” Peter said from the kitchen. “But we allow the Katolites their interpretation of our holiday. For true Daeites and followers of Ma’Nada, Fόmhair is a day of celebration of the end. The end of long days and warm nights, the end of our harvesting season, and the celebration of those we’ve lost. It is a day of dancing, drinking, singing, and eating; but all together, it is to be a day of reflection and honoring of what is now past.”
“Oh,” Camille said in wonder. “That does sound delightful.”
“Tomorrow marks the thirtieth day of Deireadh Fόmhair, which will end the harvesting season before the onset of winter,” Peter continued as he busied himself around the kitchen.
“Count Jenkins has been storing apples for us this year, can you believe it?” Lunci said, his little body literally shaking with excitement. “We get to eat apples! And I heard Betty Anne is going to make her famous gingerbread loaf. Isn’t that great?”
“Yeah, sure.” Camille said with a small, wavering smile. It all sounded incredible, but she couldn’t help feeling a pang of guilt. The Moon Tax was harsh, and many suffered through the season without much in their winter storage. Eating and drinking in such excess felt wrong.
“Don’t worry yourself,” Peter said from the doorway, eyes alight with mischief as he held a small plate of meat and cheese out for her. “The count and some of the wealthier villagers stored away additional food in the last couple months of harvesting. We’ve been lucky this year, my dear—far more than the last. No need to fret. Mother Ma’Nada has been kind with her blessings this year, and many want to share in the giving.”
“I don’t want to take what I haven’t earned,” Camille said, picking at her fingernails to avoid the kindness in Peter’s expression. “I don’t want to owe anyone anything.” As much as she knew the offer of food was an open invitation, she still felt as though she didn’t deserve to be a part of the treat. Despite her ability to be amongst the inner circle of Sierra Village, she still felt undeserving of its benefits, yet she couldn’t pinpoint why.
“You just might have to join the hunt the week, then. Fresh meat is more than enough of a contribution,” Peter answered with a sly smile, reading her expression keenly. “Perhaps even Lunci can join.”
“Join I will!” Lunci cried. “I will slay every last enemy and bring home food for twenty families!”
Both Peter and Camille laughed at the nine-year-old, but Camille couldn’t discount the shadow of worry that darkened Peter’s face as he watched his grandson.
She considered sharing her earlier encounters in the forest with Peter, but something about the interaction with the strange blue-eyed man made her want to keep it to herself. Also, a large part of her felt incredibly embarrassed about how close Lunci had gotten to danger under her protection, and there was no doubt he’d never be allowed to play in the woods again if she said anything.
They went about their nightly routine, picking through the oldest meat in the butchery that was still edible and stoking the fire to cook it. Peter reached for a loaf of bread and carefully picked off the staleness forming over the top, placing three thin slices on the rack beside the dancing flames. Lunci pulled a ripened tomato from the pantry store and sliced a couple of juicy sections off before handing them to Peter to roast over the fire.
It was a routine Camille cherished: huddling by the hearth to keep warm, clasping hands to pray to Mother Ma’Nada, and enjoying their meal together. Everything about their life felt natural to her, a comfortable sweater she’d worn many times before. It was in those moments that she felt like one of them, just as much as she felt like a complete and total outsider the rest of the time. Their routines and rituals weren’t hers; they were utterly foreign. Yet she pretended not to care that none of it belonged to her, instead smiling and giving thanks for the blessings bestowed upon her that day.
“Can we have a story tonight?” Lunci begged, plucking a small piece of mold from the edge of his bread before he took a hearty bite.
Peter smiled as he lowered himself on his weathered wicker stool stoking the flames into a steady crackling burn. “A story? I guess we can manage that,” he said with a jovial wink in Camille’s direction. “But only if you agree to the terms.”
Lunci beamed, his mouth splitting wide with an infectious smile. “Of course, I agree to the terms!”
“Which are?” Peter prompted, the stoker in hand resting the metal tip against the stone hearth like a cane.
Puffing up his chest with importance, Lunci lifted a single finger into the air. “Never repeat these stories outside of our home.”
“Yes,” Peter said with a nod as Lunci held up a second finger.
“Never discuss these stories with others outside of our family,” he said as a third finger popped up. “And never tell anyone of my love for the mother, Ma’Nada.”
Peter turned a severe eye on Camille, his blue eyes narrowed with intent.
“I won’t tell a soul, Peter,” she said without hesitation. She may not devoutly believe in the mother Ma’Nada as Peter and Lunci did, but she understood Peter’s reasoning for keeping his beliefs to himself. His faith in the mother was strictly forbidden within the borders of Aspera by order of the High King. Camille found she enjoyed Peter’s stories and didn’t want to jeopardize their tradition just because she didn’t believe it to be true.
“Which would you like to hear?” Peter asked as he returned to poking and prodding the coals into a dancing flame.
“Have you heard the story about the Ayya Sisters, Camille?” Lunci asked, bouncing up and down on his haunches like a puppy in anticipation of a meal.
“I don’t believe so,” Camille replied, taking a piece of sliced turkey and a chunk of cheese before settling down next to Neeko by the fireplace. She stroked the top of Neeko’s soft furry head as Peter began.
“Ma’Nada, the great mother of this world, has, since the birth of time, loved all living things. She did, however, form a tremendous kindred love for the moon and stars, the sun and knowledge of the world, and the many plush wonders within the Realm of the Five Shores. With her love for these elements, Ma’Nada gave life to three lovely Daughters: Buvona, Joanna, and Nimeha.
“Buvona was the protector of the night sky and those crossing into Cydonia, the land of everlasting life. Her hair raven black, her skin a warm honey brown, and eyes a fierce grey, Buvona was a dark Goddess and a brilliant light to behold. Joanna, the protector of the Sun and all organic life, had hair of fiery copper like a torching blaze on her head with eyes green as grass.”
“Like Camille!” Lunci pipped in.
“Yes, just like Camille,” Peter said with a smile.
“Then there was Nimeha, eldest of them all, the protector of time, wisdom, and fate. Right, Papa?” Lunci asked, his exuberance and enjoyment of the story infectious to Camille’s normal reserved state.
“Correct, my boy. Nimeha had the most beautiful hair, cascading down the length of her back, neither white nor blond, but a mix of the two slipping from tones of honey to the white iridescence of pearl. Her eyes were of the lightest amber, soft and inviting.”
Camille eased the stone pillar against her back, slipping into the story with ease as Peter’s slow rumbling voice continued. She enjoyed the stark tales of love and adventure, of loss and good fortune. Each story came with a strong message or warning, all she felt were slightly recognizable, but she could never place her finger on when she had heard the tale.
“The Daughters were often referred to as the Ayya, the three forms of life joined together in a circle of infinite growth and cycle of nature. Soon after enjoying the gift of new life and the exploration of their surroundings, it wasn’t long before the pang of loneliness struck them.
“Nimeha, understanding the workings of fate, had it in her mind that Ma’Nada wouldn’t leave them to suffer in longing. She patiently waited for her true love to find her. Joanna, walking the flat plains, grassy knolls, and rocky terrain of her lands, lived for the exploration and nurturing of life all around. She didn’t much mind the longing for human interaction as she had the animals and the trees to converse with. She kept a peace of mind, if not a slow yearning, knowing that her time would come. Buvona, fierce in stature and pressed into the darkness of their world, felt the sting of loneliness the most. She cared for those in passing and nurtured all who crossed the gates into Cydonia, but she could neither save them nor ease their pain. Buvona, youngest of the three sisters, felt cheated.”
Peter pulled the steaming kettle from the hook inside the hearth and went about pouring three cups of his specialty lavender mint tea. The earthy sweetness filled Camille’s nostrils, and she grabbed a slim slice of bread off the plate as Peter offered her the steaming cup. “Thank you,” she said quickly, not wanting to interrupt his story, but Peter continued with a mere nod of his head as he blew methodically on his own steaming cup of liquid.
“One night, Buvona begged for mercy from Ma’Nada, asking for the gift of man to bring her some sense of warmth and bond of family. Ma’Nada agreed, wanting love in her daughters’ lives. From the seeds of Ma’Nada’s womb, she gifted her daughters with three handsome men: Edis, Gideon, and Fotrix.
“Edis, a proud man with a penchant for the sea, took to Joanna, their mix of land and sea melting together as one. Their love true and bond secure, together they nurtured and protected not just their domains but also each other. Gideon, finding his passion in the craft of writing song and poetry, soothed his heart in the arms of Nimeha and her infinite knowledge. Fotrix was a sly trickster. Though joyous and bubbly at heart, he wasn’t honest or truthful. His passion was to manipulate, to trick, to deceive. His falsities and lies tricked Buvona, who was desperate for light and love in her life and fell deeply for the silver-haired fox.
“As Joanna and Nimeha explored the joys of love and blossoming family, Buvona remained sadly alone. Despite Fotrix’s expressed desire to love and cherish her, and his promise to build a family, Buvona walked the silvery nights alone and without any children to soften the harshness of being alone. In a spur of great cunning, Buvona devised a plan to trap Fotrix in the darkness of the underworld, allowing him only to roam the lands at the brightest of all full moons for her to easily find him.”
“I’ve always thought Fotrix deserved to be tricked,” Lunci spoke up, his lips pursed with intent thought.
“Oh?” Peter said, taking the pause in storytelling to sneak a bit of turkey between his lips. “Why is that?”
Lunci scrunched his tiny nose in thought, his sharp blue eyes watering with focused intensity. “Well, because he is mean. Buvona loves him and she is a caring, beautiful person, but he brings out the worst in her. He makes her look evil, even though she isn’t.”
“Keen observation,” Peter replied, nodding once in agreement.
“Please continue,” Camille spoke up, now profoundly intrigued with the tale.
With one quick gulp of tea, Peter quirked up an eyebrow in thought as though searching for the words rolling around somewhere in the confines of his brain. His lips pressed together, his eyes scrunched before his mouth popped open into an ‘o’ as though locating his mental bookmark and he continued the story.
“Fotrix didn’t like to be the center of a trick and loathed Buvona for succeeding in trapping him in the dark depth of the underground. He was allowed out into the open air once at every moon cycle when the fullness of its light could grace the lands with a bright silvery glow. It was on these nights that Buvona expected him to come to her, but that he did not. He instead enchanted the rocks, the trees, and the late-night animals to charm her while he planned a devious trick against her. Fotrix schemed to give a child to both Joanna and Nimeha, shielding their eyes for them to believe they lay with their lovers. Buvona, enchanted as well by Fotrix’s charm, thought herself to be full with child.
“In the following months, two beautiful girls were born: one to Joana, and one to Nimeha. The pair of the girls were clear images of Fotrix. The mothers didn’t want to forsake their newborn babes, but they realized at once what had happened. They waited for Buvona to step out of her underground home into the evening air that night and shared the news with her. Buvona, heartsick and anxious for her own child she was supposed to have birthed, looked upon these two baby girls and realized that her own pregnancy had also been a falsity.
“The girls were supposed to have been hers and Buvona, hating what Fotrix had done to her, snatched the newborn girls and pulled them down into the darkness of afterlife with both Nimeha and Joana helpless to stop her. Buvona, desperate to make Fotrix pay for his deceit, plagued the lovely daughters with an eternal curse of life and death. Eliza, born to Nimeha, was cursed to birth many children many times over in preparation of all battles. She alone would have the gift to birth an army of mass proportions. Morrighan, daughter of Joanna, was cursed with a touch of death to all living things. Buvona wanted nothing more than to end the life of her most hated enemy, and she spent her life using both Morrighan and Eliza to destroy Fotrix and kill him once and for all.”
Camille frowned, but Peter winked at her. “Not all of our sacred stories are happy ones, Camille.”
“Yes but, don’t you think it’s incredibly unfair for Buvona to have suffered so much when everyone around her was barely affected by the pain of loss and loneliness?”
Peter quirked a questioning brow at her. “You think she was the only one to suffer? The center of a storm isn’t typically where the damage happens, it’s only where the chaos begins, no?”
“Yes. Does she ever get him back for what he did to her?” Camille asked, her tea now completely gone, her hands gripping the empty mug with a bit more force than necessary.
Peter glared at her for a long and arduous moment, his milky eyes a depth of sorrow she couldn’t even begin to untangle. His face, though devoid of emotion, ripped a cavernous hole inside Camille, and yet she was unable to pinpoint its origin digging against the lining of her flesh.
“Lunci, my boy, go wash up. It’s time for bed.”
Lunci’s face crumpled into a heap of disappointment before Peter’s stern eye found him, and the little boy scurried down the dividing hall toward the washroom.
Camille remained where she sat, back straight as an arrow, her heart thudding in her chest. She couldn’t be sure where the impending sense of foreboding came from, but as Peter cleared away the plates and took a seat across from her once again, she knew without a doubt that Peter had a history she wanted no part of. It was evident in the broad lines of worry and stress running the length of his face, the downward angle of his lips and the heavy tinge of sadness that sat on his shoulders like a well-worn shroud.
“The stories aren’t all good you know—the scriptures of our gods. They capture an embodiment of holiness, morality and wellbeing, but in truth, the stories are an outline of the death and cruelty to one another. They point out the truth of man and our many flaws.”
Camille remained silent as Peter pushed the iron kettle onto the counter instead of back into the fire for another round of tea and headed to the shelves lining the right side of the kitchen wall. Reaching into the topmost shelf, Peter extracted a stone bottle corked with a waxed and wooden stopper. He grabbed two glasses from the sideboard and poured several inches of a thick caramel colored liquid into each cup.
Taking the glass he handed to her, Camille could smell the smoky notes of whiskey mixed with a woodsy tang of oak.
“Buvona spent her entire existence trying her best to defeat the trickster. Unfortunately,” Peter said with a sad smile, “some monsters can’t be killed, no matter how hard you try.”
“Do you believe the stories, these scriptures of your faith?” Camille asked, taking a small sip from her cup and enjoying the sharp burn as the whiskey traveled down her throat.
“Oh, I do,” Peter said, a resigned sigh escaping from between his lips. “Buvona may never see the end of her own internal torture, but she did give rise to another power, perhaps a stronger one.”
Taking another sip of whiskey, Camille coughed slightly, the hint of burn sizzling the lining of her throat in a somewhat uncomfortable and yet pleasing fashion. “You think the High King is that stronger power fated to rule by the Gods?”
Peter laughed then, a deep belly laugh that brought a fluttering grin to Camille’s lips. “No,” Peter said with a certain finality. “Definitely not.”
“Hope,” Peter replied easily, as though the single word had been resting on his tongue throughout the entire evening. “The Mother and her three daughters gave us hope.”
Camille snorted in response. “Oh, come on, you can’t be serious.”
“I’m dead serious my dear. Buvona may have cursed her nieces but she left Aspera with two incredible protectors. A giver of unending life and an unstoppable warrior able to kill even the deadliest of all evils. She may not have saved her own life, but she sought the answers to help Aspera in need of protection against the trickster.”
She couldn’t tell if he was being completely serious or pulling her leg, but felt it best to remain silent, uncertain of what Peter was trying to say to her. If the sharp glint in his eye was anything to consider, Camille felt Peter was unloading a dark secret he thought it wasn’t his place to keep any longer.
If she was truly honest with herself, she might admit that as much as Camille wanted answers from Peter about who she was and her past, there was an immense amount of fear surrounding what the truth might be. Perhaps the past and its many stories were best left alone, untouched and disintegrating with time.