(Author's Note: This is a short story featuring a race that I created called the Evoni. For those of you who read my Keeper Chronicles, the race will probably make an appearance in the second installment. Gotta finish the first though... Think of this as a read-a-long for the future)
The Life of a Redbird
His tiny body looked so small and hollow where it landed on the dew soaked ground. Etli pressed herself flat against the tree branch as she stared in horror at what she had done. She never meant to kill him- never intended to go so far. But she had. In that moment, the soft thud of feathers meeting wet grass became an echo in her mind, because Etli knew she would hear it again in the form of her mother's furious scolding, and once again when she was placed before the clan elders for her disobedience.
Tears began clinging to her lashes as she clenched her eyes shut. Mother will never forgive me for this, she thought to herself while the branch shook with the force of her quieted sobs. I never wanted to use my magic like that, I really didn't. But the little bird scared me and I couldn't help it! She had snuck out of the longhouse early that morning before any of the others had risen. Etli knew that her mother, as well as her aunts and uncles, would be slow to awaken because it had been their turn to replenish the healing circle that evening. Part of being an evona meant one had to give back the life they borrow from the circle. Etli did not understand how it worked, because she was too young and the elders felt she was not ready for the knowledge. All evoni people believed that a child was not responsible enough to use life magic, the gift that the Goddess Aessesara had bestowed upon her race. The Vatei clan that she was born into, however, was even stricter about the magic's uses and decreed that any Vatei evona under the age of twenty cycles was forbidden to use the gift. It was unfair in Etli's opinion because after taking from the healing circle, her mother always looked so young and beautiful. However, after evona who return life are inevitably aged and haggard, leading to a great deal of rest and recuperation afterwards. . So after her family returned energy to the sacred circle, Etli knew it would be the best time to sneak out. They would all be tired and would not rise until the sun was directly above their quiet little mountain. But now, seeing the tiny redbird's sunken body below her, the girl knew she should have stayed home and left the mysteries of her people alone. She could have waited ten years if it meant never having to hear her mother's sweet and musical voice distorted by grief and disappointment. In fact, she would have also waited had she known how effortless it was to absorb the life of another- how impassive the magic was. At one moment, she had been sitting in the sun tree she had found, where the yellow and white blossoms seemed to absolutely glow in the morning light that peaked over the top of the hill, and the next, she was gripping the bark as her tears showered the dead bird below her.
I only wanted to know, she thought to herself. I just wanted to be like Mother. When she climbed up in that tree, her only intention was to sate her curiosity, to be one of the adults. At first, once she had found a sturdy enough branch to support her tiny frame, she sat there in confusion. Her clan was so against children being exposed to Aessesara's gift, that she had never actually seen it happen. She knew that if it were a life and death situation, that the elders would have taken life from somewhere else to heal an injured child, but there had never been a need for it within her lifetime, at least that Etli had known about. And so, with a little bit of bread that she had saved from yesterday's dinner, she contented herself with a breakfast of rye and deep thought.
"If I were part of the Felaran clan, I bet they would have told me how to do this," she said between bites. "In fact, if I were a Felaran, or even part of the Giayan clan, I bet I would have seen Aessesara's magic up close already." But that didn't matter. What mattered was her determination to find out what they were hiding from her, the secret magic that made them eternally young and healthy.
Her people had a saying. "Open your spirit and life will open unto you." It was said at most festivals and ceremonies as some sort of formality. Etli decided that it was the best place to start if she were to unlock the secret by the afternoon. After finishing half of her bread, she set it inside the pale yellow cloth and placed it in the satchel she had tied to the branch. Quickly, she wadded her dark brown hair on top of her head, careful not to get any stray hairs stuck on her long, thin ears, and set to work.
"How do I open my spirit?" she mused, staring up at the pink morning sky through the leaves. She dully noted that there were hardly any clouds that morning, a bad sign since Elder Ealal had predicted rain every day for six days with the utmost failure in prediction thus far. Etli didn't think that he was going to be right today either, though a good thing for her if she planned on being perched in a tree all morning.
As the sky slowly brightened to blue, Etli sat unmoving on her branch, still puzzled by her task. Every mental avenue she traveled was met with a wall of unknowing, or a vast chasm of uncertainty. However, it wasn't until she noticed the redbird in a nearby tree that her luck began to shift and walls and chasms melted away. Straining her brown eyes, she noticed that the little bird had a nest in the tree. He probably has a mate and little eggs in the nest. It was the Season of Blooming, after all. As she watched him flitter around, flying back and forth to the nest, her focus narrowed until all she saw was the little bird. Over and over again, he would land softly on the ground, pick up a twig or a leaf, and return to his home and carefully place it within the already large nest. Many times throughout the morning he repeated this ritual, and the girl on the branch watched with fascination.
Without even realizing at first, Etli began to feel a humming deep inside her chest, as if a sound was imprisoned inside. The longer she watched the bird, the more the humming beat against her chest until it started to shift, began to transform into something else entirely. Before long, it wasn't a sound at all. By the time Etli knew what was happening, she recognized that this was another sense altogether. It was as if an invisible thread connected her to the bird, a sort living tether that vibrated and hummed from the tension binding the two. A smile overtook her face, and as she did, she felt the tether become slack from lack of focus.
"Oh!" she chirped, startled to lose the progress she had made, and carefully, she tightened her grip on the invisible thread by focusing on the little creature once more. The question now, though, was what to do next. She knew that this had to be a part of the magic innately built into her race. An evona born without the gift was completely unheard of ever since Aessesara blessed the evoni. So now that she had established the connection, Etli found that she had no idea what was supposed to happen next.
For a few moments, the bird continued to make its trips unabated, but for some reason unknown to Etli, it decided to move closer to the sun tree Etli occupied. The redbird alighted on the end of Etli's branch, and he seemed to stare at her. The girl felt the tether vibrating so strongly within her that she was suddenly frightened of the power she was wielding. It seemed as if he were caught in her gaze, and she in his. It was a standoff and fear and uncertainty, for both were curiously terrified by what the other beheld. Time stopped having meaning for the girl. She and the redbird seemed to be the only living things left in existence, and as they stared at each other for what seemed like centuries, Etli suddenly knew. This is what it means to open your soul.
CHIRP! Suddenly, with time broken, and her focus shattered, the girl shrieked as the tiny redbird began flying straight at her face. From her absolute terror, little Etli yanked the thread that bound the two as hard as she could, a reflex from being startled. Before her very eyes, the young evona girl saw a light flash in the bird's eyes, which then seemed to dance through the air into her own, like a strange wiggling and living thing. As the spark of life faded from the air, the redbird shriveled in midflight, its body caving in as if from great age and decay, and she heard the soft thud of feathers meeting wet and dewy grass.
Now, as she gripped the branch, Etli knew that she had done a terrible thing. Her people did not believe in taking life through magic, only borrowing portions of it. She knew immediately that the bird was dead, and once dead, no amount of evoni magic could bring it back. Maybe the mystical elves that inhabited the southern islands could, but not Etli. No, what Etli had done was crossing a line, and she knew that her mother would be so upset.
Releasing her vice grip on the sun tree, Etli quickly descended through the tangle of twisted branches, knocking off several white and yellow blossoms as she went. A part of her wanted to check the bird, no… needed to check the bird, but she didn't want his mate seeing her around the body. No, the instant her feet touched the forest floor, she was running. Being an evona gave her an advantage over the other races on the Caspagrian peninsula. Her people were built for endurance, and could outrun a human or an elf any day. She had every intention of running faster than anyone had ever gone before until she had expended all of the energy she had. Maybe if she ran until she had no more air left in her lungs, she could give part of the energy, part of the life, back to the widowed redbird and her eggs. She didn't know exactly how the magic worked, or exactly how she had killed the small creature, but maybe she could find a way to repay what she had stolen.
Limbs and leaves whipped her face as she sped over rocks and streams, fighting with the incessant tears that clouded her eyes. Aessesara, forgive me! I didn't mean to, she screamed within her mind, praying that the Goddess of Life and Dawn will spare her and understand her sorrow. As the evona child fled the scene, it seemed as if she were racing Jux, the Sun God himself, to see who would reach the horizon faster. As was natural for her clan, she let her bare feet embrace the cool soil with each step, and even the hard thorns that seemed to rise from the ground to slow her progress were like the afterthought of a tickle. The farther she went, the more the wind dried her eyes and comforted the grieving child, until she could feel nothing except the passing of the world around her.
She ran for what seemed like days, feeling as if she had lived through centuries of blurred forest scenes. She sensed that she must have left the Vatei far behind her. The longhouse, all of her aunts of and uncles, and even the Elders were like a dream. Without warning, though, the dream was interrupted as she broke through the trees into a bright and choking light. Etli stopped, tears threatening to tear her asunder once more, when she saw the glistening waters of Lake Adua. The full force of time hit Etli all at once when she realized that it wasn't even afternoon yet, that her parents were probably still asleep, and that the lake was only a short walk from her home.
The small child stood there doubled over, gasping for breath as sobs and exhaustion tried to drag her down into the muck and mire of the lakeshore. Is this what the redbird felt when I took all of the life from him? Etli cried harder as the thought stumbled through her mind, needlessly kicking up images of the poor, fallen creature. She had opened her soul to the world, and now the life that had thrummed in response lay dead upon withered grass and fallen blossoms. To keep from sinking, Etli lifted her head up, fighting back the misery that tangled her limbs, and with the same determination that led her to the woods in the first place, she took a few tentative steps toward the other side of the lake where she knew she could rest.
Lake Adua was barely a lake in the normal sense, but rather just a hollow area nestled between the crests of mountains where water began to collect. The other side of lake was more rocky, and against a cliff that seemed to rise from ground, her people had built a shrine to Aessesara, and at the very least, it was a dry place where she could curl up for a few hours before she had to head back. With every step it seemed as if her bones sought to escape her legs, and by the time she reached the stone floor of the shrine, she collapsed because it felt like her body was made of sticks and mud.
Etli looked around for a moment, remembering the last time she had been here. It was only a few moons ago when her mother came to give thanks to the goddess for all the blessings her family had received during the past cycle. The shrine had not changed at all. The rough stone floor rested unevenly, the different stones often poking out in different directions. The stone statue of the beautiful Aessesara leaned a bit to one side because of the bad craftsmanship, but the Vatei loved her all the same. This representation portrayed her as a beautiful maiden, though she was known to appear in other forms as well. Her hair was down and her pointed ears poked through to show her evona personage. The artist thought it best to dress her in a conservative dress with a belt, though Etli rather liked the images where she wore elegant gowns and jewelry. Etli thought Aessesara was the prettiest of the Goddesses, after all, and deserved the best portrayal. A simple thatch roof sheltered the shrine, resting on four basic columns so that the area was completely open, and Etli knew that a few of the craftsmen came every so often to do repairs. The bowl of water at the base of Aessesara was a meager offering bowl compared to the grand fountains she'd seen when they'd traveled to Giayan for the Festival of Life. It was this shrine's meagerness that charmed the girl the most at the moment because, had it been any grander, little Etli would have preferred to sit outside in the mud so that her shame could not tarnish the beauty.
Leaning up against the cold stone that had been carved centuries ago, Etli began to pray in the best way she knew how. "Aessessara, can you help me? Mother will be angry with me if I go back. I do not even want to imagine what the Elders will say." She paused and looked up at the statue, hoping for some sort of response. None came from the impassive form. "I understand if you don't want to talk to me. I wouldn't be upset if you were mad at me for using your gift. But if you don't mind, I would really like to sit here for a while." And there she stayed, watching the sun slowly climb in the sky from between the columns. On the other side of the lake, she noticed a few other Vatei wander in to wash clothes or gather water, but none ventured to the shrine, for which she was grateful.
As she sat there slumped against the statue, she drifted in and out of sleep. Images of the redbird kept flittering around her consciousness, and she then would wake with a start, new tears coming in unstoppable waves. In time, however, she found herself in an easy sleep, the sort that comes after a day of hard work, or after great weariness. As she finally slept, she dreamt of a woman that stood in a thick fog. The girl, with a renewed vigor in her legs, chased after the figure, curious as to who would be wandering in such weather. Several times she called to the woman, and no matter how quickly she ran, the woman came no closer.
"Little Etli, you have done a terrible thing," the woman called through the haze, her voice distorted and distant sounding. "You should have known better than to play with things that are bigger than you." The girl stopped chasing and looked curiously at the figure obscured by the whiteness of the mist.
"How do you know what I have done?" she called in response to the figure, her defenses going up in response to the accusation, no matter how true it may have been. "Who are you?"
"Have you ever wondered why you have brown hair and brown eyes, when the rest of the Evoni have almost white hair and blue eyes, Little Etli? It is because of the magic that Aessesara has bestowed. When you use it, it drain all of the color you have. Did you know that?"
"…No." Slowly this time, the child tried to approach the figure, and to Etli's surprise, the figure allowed her to come closer. As she walked, taking tentative steps as if the woman were going to run off if spooked, the girl asked, "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because, child, you have used a magic that you do not understand. You are sleeping now, Little One. But when you wake, look at yourself in the reflection in the bowl of the statue you sleep by. Notice the lightness in your once dark hair." The figure turned and began walking away, yet Etli found herself catching up. As the distance grew shorter, Etli could see the white hair of the woman and the pale green dress that she wore. She was tall, but so were most Evoni women, which was no surprise. What was shocking, however, was the little redbird perched upon the woman's shoulder.
"That bird, where did it come from?" The child had been following with such determination that she almost ran into the woman when the elder stopped. The mysterious Evona did not turn around however, and Etli found that she could no longer move her legs. The only thing she could do was look in the eyes of the healthy little bird perched on the shoulder.
"I found this little creature in the woods. I believe you have already met him. I found him with this satchel, which I believe to be yours." Etli suddenly noticed that her satchel which she had left hanging on the tree was now on the uneven stone floor beside her. "Etli, you must understand that the evoni's gift is a serious responsibility, one that you cannot afford to play with. A bird's life is no more a toy than your own. I cannot undo the magic that you have cast, because its mark is upon you and shows in your hair, but I can return this bird to your world. Wherever you go, he will follow not far behind as a reminder for you. Now, when you wake you will find that your mother has been trying to rouse you and that you cannot remember this dream. Your family has been worried about you, you know. Let this be a lesson to you. Aessesara's gift is not something to be taken lightly. You must use it to help, not to hurt. If you do that, then you shall never have a need to worry."
As if suddenly tossed into a pool, Etli began to fall. She tumbled faster and faster, until all sights and sounds became an unfathomable mess, and then finally, after the chaos of freefalling, the girl found herself drifting. Before she could register what had happened, she was leaned against the cool stone of the statue once more, safely under the thatch roof of Aessesara's shrine. Dully she noted a faint chirping coming from the eaves of the shrine, but her first real impression was the face of her mother worriedly hovering over her.
Slowly, the child sat up, wiping the sleepiness from her eyes. "Mother… I must have dozed off. I had the strangest dream…."
Her mother let out a small laugh of relief. "Etli, you had me worried sick! How did you end up all the way out here? It's nearly dinner time and we've been searching everywhere for you!"
For some unknown reason, the previous fears had vanished. The girl wasn't sure if it was because of her strange nap, or if it was because she was genuinely feeling better. Regardless, Etli told her mother everything. The words came pouring from her mouth as quickly as the tears had fallen from earlier. She stumbled over her words so much that her mother often asked her to slow down. After all was said and done, however, Etli's mother just smiled.
"Sweetie, you aren't the first person in the world to make a mistake, and I'm sure you won't be the last." She sat down beside her daughter and placed a comforting arm around the child. Yes, this is a big mistake, and one the Elders will surely punish you for, but it won't be the end of the world. Now, grab your satchel over there so we can get you back to the longhouse."
Glancing over, little Etli saw her satchel propped up against one of the columns of the shrine. She did not remember bringing it here, but as if remembering from a distant dream, Etli knew things were as they should be. Grabbing the satchel first, then her mother's hand, she followed closely as they slowly made their way back home. Glancing over her shoulder, Etli smiled when she saw a little redbird twittering in the branches. Maybe he would stumble upon the widow's nest in the woods. Etli hoped so. Perhaps this new bird could help care for that little family in need of help.