Ashai picked his head up, ears pricking forward as the horse turned his head to look over Jedda’s shoulder. Jedda looked up to see Bodan, dark eyes looking earnest as he approached the paddock.
“Jedda, my mother insisted that I invite you to the Hanod-kaj,” Bodan paused, looking unsure for a moment. “I don’t know the word for it in Chanmyr. It is a rite of transformation. The entire p’hatra will be attending, all three caravans.”
As an informal guest of Bodan’s caravan, that meant his attendance would be expected. Jedda looked at Bodan, his mind racing, but he couldn’t come up with a plausible excuse. Even after more than a month, Jedda still preferred to be alone. He knew he couldn’t keep using his injuries as an excuse. He was mostly healed at this point and even the worst of the bruising had faded. He nodded, wishing something would come up before the event.
Bodan watched him, looking young and earnest. The man’s family had gone out of their way to look after Jedda. Had Anishe ordered them to watch over him? She was the leader of the entire caravan, so she couldn’t be expected to look after him, even though she asked after him on a regular basis.
Bodan’s family had been kind and generous, offering him a place to sleep and cooking his meals. Now, he felt obligated. “Thank you for the invitation. I would love to go.”
“You can sit with our family.”
Jedda nodded. “Thank you,” not knowing what else to say, regarding an event he knew nothing about.
“You should have just enough time to wash up,” Bodan said, clapping Jedda on the shoulder and nudged him towards the spigot.
It didn’t take long for him to wash and change. With no idea what a Hanod-kaj was, Jedda just tried to be presentable and then headed over to Bodan’s caravan. The young man’s mother hustled them toward the western side of the Bedda camp and up a trail leading to a small grove.
The grove was set in a circle of massive trees, with rows of benches forming circles. Fila directed them to a row of log benches in the back of a large circle. Through the crowd, Jedda could just make out an enormous tree stump in the center.
Drums beat out a steady pulsing rhythm, like a heartbeat. Lighter rhythms wove in and out of the steady beat. A gentle metallic resonance began, but Jedda couldn’t see where it was coming from. The sound filled in the space left behind the drums, and somewhere, a woman began to sing. Jedda began to drift into a trance.
Jedda’s attention began to wander. He looked looked up, trying to see the sky. Turquoise and green splashed across the night sky, casting all three moons in an eerie glow. Jedda watched the colors ebb and then turned his attention back to the gathering in the grove.
All of the Beddo joined into the chant, and, in turn, each went up to the center and placed flowers on the massive tree stump. Jedda had seen bigger trees when he had been with the Faenyr but this was larger than any tree he had seen in his travels. And now it was covered in flower petals. White with splashes of yellow and deep purple.
The colors swirled, and he began to see shapes and patterns. A dove, a herd of white horses stampeding majestically. His mind sank into the images and he felt his awareness shift.
The tree stump began to glow, a soft white, pulsing lines that traced out where the roots stretched out into the earth, fingers delving downward. The pile of flowers on the stump glowed brilliantly, then they began to float upward. As that happened, the tree began to grow upward, pure white light. From tiny seedling to sapling growing larger and filling in the space that it would become, until it took up the entire width of the stump, ghostly light branches arching upward.
The pulsing of the light matched the drumming. The purple and yellow petals became blossoms in the branches, forming intricate geometric patterns. The in the heart of the tree, Jedda realized someone was standing there, arms reaching upwards. A priest? Then Jedda realized he could see through the person.
It was a man, and he was becoming less and less substantial, becoming vaporous Definitely not an elder or a priest. Jedda shifted his awareness so that he could read the colors and energy. The singing of the group combined with the drumming, feeding the magic of the tree, transforming the being into light and energy.
Hanod-kaj. Jedda decided he would ask what the term meant but as he sat there he had a vague sense that this rite of transformation was the Beddo funeral. Not something he would have done, if he had known what he was agreeing to. He sighed, knowing it would be disrespectful to get up and leave.
The drum pulsed, and the secondary beat slowed down, becoming softer. Jedda felt a wave of emotion sweep through him. He held onto his pendant, felt it warm against his skin, grounding him to the present. Grief and longing washed over him. A memory of Kirrin cooking dinner was so vivid that he could smell the choofa spices. He and Kirrin poring over maps of the world. It felt like the pull the Faenyr had only stronger. He felt his heart pound and he couldn’t catch his breath as tears made his eyes sting.
He squeezed his eyes tight and forced himself to take slow measured breaths. Trying to be quiet and not draw attention to himself, he stepped over the log bench so he wouldn’t disturb the other guests and slipped backwards into the shade of the trees.
Once he left the sacred grove, he stopped, bent over and rubbed at his face, trying to wash away the emotions he was feeling. Kirrin was gone. The Faenyr had rejected him. Even among the welcoming Beddo, he felt alone. He straightened up and pushed his hair back, then headed back towards the p’hatra.
Once he left the grove, the trees closed in and it was difficult to see the path.
He stepped around a large oak tree, and stopped, surprised. A little girl was standing in the middle of the path. “Hello there,” said Jedda. “Are you lost?” He couldn’t imagine what she was doing out here by herself otherwise. Beddo children traveled in packs, and never far from the watchful eyes of a mother or three.
“I’m looking for my mama,” she said, peering into the gloom. It took Jedda a moment to understand what she had said. Her speech was thick, even for the Beddo.
“I’ll bring you back to the caravan.” He guessed she couldn’t have been more than eight years old, wearing a colorful nightdress and nothing else, not even shoes. Had she been sleepwalking? How had she gotten so far from the camp?
Jedda stuck his hand out, hoping she would take it, “Here, we’ll get you back to your family.”
She seemed reluctant to follow him. She looked around, staring off into the darkness. “I’m looking for my mama. I was asleep.” Her eyes suddenly welled with tears.
Jedda didn’t know much about taking care of children, but he remembered watching the Beddo children playing in the camp. “You look a bit tired. What if I give you a pony-ride back to your parents?”
The girl chewed on her thumb, watching Jedda from the corner of her eye. “What’s a pony ride?”
“Oh, you’ve never had a pony ride?” He turned around, squatting low to the ground. “Climb up on my back, and wrap your arms around my neck. It’s easy,” he said. In truth, he had never done it before. He waited a moment, sensing her hesitance. He shook his head and made horse noises.
She giggled and climbed aboard.
“What’s your name?” he asked, as they trotted along.
“What a pretty name. My name is Jedda.” He gave a whinney and bounced her a bit. “Your family must be getting worried about you. What’s your mother’s name? Which caravan is she with?”
“We’re with the Kasijin’s caravan,” she said.
He didn’t recognize the name. He was traveling with Anishe’s caravan, and Bodan was part of the Sedra group. There was also Nijira’s and Hirash’s two. He didn’t know of a Kasijin, but maybe someone had just traveled into the camp for the ceremony. One of the elders would probably know where the girl’s family was. They were all still at the ceremonial site. “Well, then. Let’s get you back to them.”
Once they were on level footing, he began to jog, and carried her back towards the grove. The bright glow was gone now. So was everything on the trunk of the tree, which was just a normal stump, once again. The Beddo were all lingering around in small clusters, chatting. Anishe and the elders were deep in discussion in the center, frowning and shaking their heads.
“Hello!” he called out. Heads turned towards him. “I found Kajiin out wandering in the woods. She seems a bit lost. We’re looking for her family. She’s with the Kasijin’s caravan? Kasijin’s caravan, are you missing a little girl?”
Silence spread, radiating out around him like ripples on a pond. From the center of the clearing, Anishe and the elders converged, and headed towards him, Anishe unfastening her ornate cloak as she walked.
“I’m trying to get little Kajiin here back to her family,” he said as she approached. “Looking for the Kasijin caravan.”
“Hush now,” Anishe lifted the girl down and wrapped her in the cloak. The other elders formed a circle, concealing them from view. Anishe spoke to the girl softly in the Beddo dialect. Jedda didn’t understand this tense reaction. Should he not have brought her here? Were children not allowed on the sacred site?
“Jedda, why don’t you go find Bodan’s family? Ask Fila to make up some hot tea and soup. The girl feels fevered and chilled.”
“What about her family?”
“Never you mind, we have the situation well in hand.”
Jedda watched as a half dozen elders clustered around Kajiin, whispering among themselves. Anishe held the girl on her hip like a toddler, keeping the cloak wrapped over her head, shielding her from view. Why hadn’t the girls parents shown up?
Ezren spoke to the whispering crowd. “My family, it is very late, it is time we are all in bed.” The tone didn’t leave any room for argument, and the crowds dispersed. Jedda scanned the grove, spotting Bodan and Fila where they had been sitting for the ceremony. He skirted around the outer perimeter to reach them. Fila, Bodan and her partner were all glancing towards the elders.
Fila turned toward Jedda as he approached from the other direction. “Are you feeling better?” she asked him.
Jedda blinked, having forgotten about his sudden departure from the ceremony. “Yes, I am. Thank you.”
Then she nodded back towards Anishe. “What’s going on over there?” she asked.
Jedda shrugged. He had been hoping Fila would tell him. “I’m not sure. I found Kajiin out in the woods. I brought her back, hoping to find her family, but I seem to have done something wrong.”
Fila, nodded impatiently, “But who is she? What did you say her clan was?” “Kasijin. She said she was asleep, and now she’s looking for her mother. Oh, and Anishe wants you to make her soup.”
“Kasijin?” Fila turned to look over to the group of elders. Jedda couldn’t tell what she was looking for but a moment later, she turned back and nodded. “Of course. It shall be done.” She marched away, her family following in her wake.
Watching Fila disappear down the path, Jedda had a feeling something was very wrong. If that wasn’t enough, he shifted his awareness and read their concern in the colors flowing around their bodies. Anishe had meant for him to go back to the main camp but after years of spying for Hak’kar, his natural curiosity kicked in. He looked around and noticed a small stand of trees and bushes just beyond where the group was standing. It only took a moment for him to circle around and work his way close enough to hear their conversation.
Ezren.“Not one of ours,” the old man said.
“Nor ours.” Hardoth said, shaking his head.
“Strange accent, indeed. Reminds me of great-elder J’Meriz.”
They looked back to the girl, who was beginning to cry now, tears streaming down her cheeks and wiping at her nose. “Where is my mama?” she asked. “The man promised he’d take me to my family. Please, my mother will be worried for me. I told her I would be home in time for evening chores.”
“Whose caravan do you ride with?” Anishe asked, then looked up to the others. “Maybe she got lost and left behind from another family…?
“Any wagons pass through this afternoon?”
“Not that I know of, no,” the first man said.
“Well, she isn’t from any of the families with my wagons, I know every one of them,” Anishe said, talking over the top of the girl’s head.
Another woman walked up behind Anishe, turning Kajeen so she could get a good look. “Not one of ours, either,” she said, decisively.
“I already told you, the Kajiin caravan.” The girl looked around wildly. “They must be around here.”
Anishe gave her a comforting squeeze. “We’re trying to figure it out kushane, I know this must be scary for you.”
Kushane, a song bird. He had heard elders use the term when addressing young children.
The elders all looked uncomfortable. Jedda couldn’t imagine why. Had the girl done something or broken some rule by visiting their sacred mourning site?
“You aren’t suggesting–”
The group went silent. Jedda felt the tension in the air as they exchanged silent looks over the top of the girl’s head.
“There was an excessive amount of magic flowing tonight.”
“You think the Hanod-kaj…” the man’s voice trailed off.
The silence stretched out as they exchanged another round of looks.
Jedda saw something close to fear on the old man’s face.
“Do you have any other explanations for it?”
Ezren took a deep breath, held it. “There must be another explanation,” the man insisted.
“This has not happened in our memory.”
“I’ve only heard about this, thought it was a fireside tale” a second voice agreed
Anishe shook her head.
Jedda couldn’t make sense of it. Evidently they understood what had happened and it was a bad thing. Was the hanod-kaj ceremony for one of her parents?
Adaris looked down at Kajiin, stroking her hair. “We’ll get it sorted and be finding your family.” The kindly woman opened her arms, and the girl went into them willingly. Anishe frowned, and left the circle.
“Can you take me to my mama?” the girl asked, openly crying now. “I want my mama. I want to go home!”
Jedda could hear the bewilderment in her words, and felt a pang of sympathy. Poor girl. Why hadn’t they taken her back to the camp yet? He should get back to the camp himself, before someone noticed him. His first rule in spying was to be inconspicuous. If that wasn’t possible, then he knew enough to be well hidden. Right now, he was neither. He had no good reason to be lurking around in the shadows. If the elders had wanted him to know what was going on, Anishe wouldn’t have sent him off. These people had been very good to him. . He could just wait until morning and ask Anishe about the girl
A twig snapped right behind him and he spun around.
“Weren’t you getting soup for that poor cold child?”
Jedda opened his mouth but nothing came out.
Even in the dim light, he could tell she was a bit incredulous by the tilt of her head. Now he felt guilty for spying but also a little surprised that he had been spotted.
“Fila is making some,” he said.
“I see,” she said, her tone dry. At least she didn’t sound angry. “Also, I notice for someone who avoids magic, you seem to be using a lot of it. Not to mention that it is being used to do something rude.”
That caught him off guard. “What are you talking about? I haven’t used any magic, not in weeks, not since joining the caravan.”
Anishe stepped closer and stared him down, eyes narrowed. She opened her mouth to say something, but then Kajiin started wailing and she turned back to the group. “We’re going to talk about this later,” she said over her shoulder, holding his gaze.
He ducked his head and turned back towards the camp. He wondered what Anishe had meant about his using magic. He hadn’t cast any spells and had been very careful not to draw on his Faenyr magic. That was a bit harder, since it was based on intuition and instinct. Fortunately, he had only recently learned about his Faenyr magic. Anishe had sounded certain, though. Had he been drawing on his Faenyr magic without realizing it? The idea bothered him, and he pushed it aside.
He went over to Bodan’s caravan and made for the cook fire. He could see Fila just inside the wagon, mending clothes. She looked up as Jedda approached, shaking her head and muttering. “That boy, he is harder on his clothes than any of mine ever were.”
“Pihar?” he asked.
“I’ve no idea what he does. He swears by the gods that it was an accident.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him fall or get hurt,” he said, unsure what the appropriate response was. “But Anishe sent me to ask if you’d heat up some tea and soup.”
That got Fila’s attention. She looked at Jedda closely, putting her mending aside. “The girl?” she asked.
Jedda nodded, as Fila sighed and pushed herself out of her chair and headed towards the cookpot.
Standing there, he began to feel the chill. He still wasn’t used to the cooler weather in the west. He headed over to the firepit, grabbing a few pieces of wood and sticking them into the bed of coals.
Pihar came up behind him.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Jedda didn’t know Bodan’s cousin very well. The two boys were about the same age. From what he had picked up, Pihar was from one of the barge families but was staying with Bodan for a while. Evidently there had been a girl involved.
“Yea, I’m okay. I just wasn’t really prepared for the ceremony. I’d never been to one before.”
Pihar nodded. Shalidan, had a good sending.
Jedda had no idea what a good sending meant and wasn’t feeling curious about death rites. That subject hit too close to home still.
“So, what about the girl you found? Did you find her family?”
Jedda wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say or not say. “The elders took her. I’m not sure what was going on.”
“She was probably just lost,” Pihar said.
“That’s what I thought too, but she said she was from the Kasijin family, or Kasijin caravan. That seemed to bother the elders.”
Pihar laughed and shook his head. “She must have been confused.”
“That’s what the elders said but the girl seemed clear-headed and sure of herself.”
“It’s not possible,” Pihar said, waving his hand dismissively.
“Why is that?” Jedda asked, curious.
“Because the Kasijin caravan was lost in a bridge collapse fifty years ago. Whole caravan– just gone. So you see? No chance a girl that age is from the Kasijin. They don’t exist anymore.”