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On the island of Moth, under a swollen moon, Pomella AnDone stormed out of her house, slamming the door behind her. She hurried, expecting Fathir’s yell to sound behind her. It was like waiting for thunder after a flash of lightning.
“You’re not a jagged noble!” he finally screamed from behind the door. “Cut your hair and know your place!”
Pomella knocked aside a half-made barrel and strode away from the house, not looking back. She snatched up a wicker basket and carried it under one arm past her flourishing garden. The hateful man could choke on gunkroot for all she cared. She’d grow her hair whatever length she wanted.
All around her, the villagers of Oakspring prepared for tonight’s Springrise festival. A cluster of men fed a young bonfire to push back the darkening night. A swarm of children chased one another, leaving behind frazzled mhathirs trying to bundle them up. Pomella ignored everyone, and headed toward the forest.
The bustle of village activity faded as she hiked to a nearby hill on the edge of the Mystwood. Comforting silence greeted her as she passed the tree line. The rushing flow of the Creekwaters sang to her from the far side of the hill, down in the thicket.
Pomella relaxed her heaving breaths. Tucking back a strand of her dark hair, she inhaled deeply. This place, the forest, was her solace. She’d never traveled outside the barony, but she couldn’t imagine a more peaceful place on Moth. Out here, nobody would holler at her, saying it was improper for a commoner to have long hair. Nobody would—
The night erupted with howling wolves.
Pomella froze, hugging the basket tight to her body. The howls faded, replaced by the trickle of the Creekwaters and the Springrise revelry coming from her village.
Biting her lip, Pomella wondered whether she should tell the Watcherman about the wolves. Maybe he’d believe her this time. Maybe, but probably not. She looked down the hill toward the distant village. Women and men laughed around the bonfire, and somebody pummeled the drums.
With everyone here for the festival, wolves could bring a bundle of trouble for the outlying homesteads.
Assuming, of course, they were normal wolves.
Setting her jaw, she hurried farther up the hill to a cluster of boulders. She climbed them with long-practiced ease until she stood at their summit, overlooking the shallow valley on the far side. Moonlight blanketed the Mystwood like a lingering winter frost. She listened for more wolves, but no further howls came. Pomella inhaled deeply, savoring the night, letting the fresh air calm her.
A rush of light flashed across the treetops. Her heart raced. It came again, revealing a glowing, silvery owl, trailing wispy light that quickly vanished behind it.
A familiar tingle of fear rose within Pomella. It’d been the life of the stars since anyone believed her about seeing strange, misty animals in her garden or the Mystwood. Each time she’d told somebody, they’d looked at her like she was a dunder. It was the same reason she’d learned long ago not to talk about her books or how she sometimes tried to feel and use the Myst. If her fathir found out about either, especially the Myst, he’d ensure with a firm hand that she didn’t blather about it again. Commoners were forbidden from meddling in such things.
Still, sometimes, on cool nights like this, she felt something different in the air, like a song in her chest, demanding to be sung.
She shook her head. The owl was gone, and the wolves weren’t likely to be a concern tonight. Or maybe shewas a dunder and had imagined the whole thing.
Jumping down the rocks, Pomella found her nearby drying line and snatched up the clothes hanging there. She quickly folded each garment, tucking them inside the basket. She hummed as she worked, trying to raise her spirits for tonight’s Springrise festival.
Stepping barefoot across the cool hillside grass, Pomella returned to her village. But instead of heading toward the bonfire, she skirted around Goodman AnClure’s smithy, its furnace banked and quiet for the night. She found a dark corner behind the thatch-roofed building and dropped the basket. Quick as a luck’n so as not to be seen, she pulled her work dress over her head and let it drop to the ground. The night air pebbled her dark, almond-colored skin and she prayed to all the Saints that spring would bring warmer weather.
This would have been easier if she’d just gone home to change, but she was afraid Fathir might still be there. That, and her brother Gabor might be lurking, and the last thing she wanted was the little twerper running off with her dress as a prank like he did last Summeryarn.
Pomella fumbled through the basket, and pulled out her Springrise dress. She’d sewn it herself in autumn, having saved her nugs and even a clip in order to afford the fabric before winter came. She hoped to Brigid the dress fit. Pomella had grown more than usual over the past year, both in height and in the chest. Blessed Saints, how she hoped she was done growing! She was sixteen and it was time to be quit of it.
When she wiggled the dress over her hips, it settled nicely, if a bit snug, over her curves. She checked the length of the long sleeves. Embroidered ivy and sunflowers wove themselves around the cuffs and hem. It would have to do. Grandmhathir had always said Pomella’s best talents lay elsewhere.
“There you are!” called a familiar voice.
Pomella looked up as Bethy AnClure, red haired and crowned with a golden wreath of winter leaves and pine needles in the likeness of Saint Brigid, hurried over. A heavy, shamrock-green cloak hung across Bethy’s shoulders, clasped in front with a pin shaped liked a Mothic knot.
“Were you off talking to birds in the woods again?” Pomella’s friend said. “The Toweren is about to begin, and you promised me you wouldn’t miss it.”
“I know, sorry, Bethy. I had to get out for a bit. My fathir was being a culk again. Do you like my—”
“Oh!” Bethy gasped, her blue eyes widening. “Your dress! Look at it! These ocean waves are so beautiful.”
“They’re ivy,” Pomella said, frowning.
“Oh, shite, sorry,” Bethy snipped, brushing off her mistake. “It looks wonderful.”
“Thank you. Your Brigid costume looks nice, too. The cloak is beautiful. With that and your hair, you were born to play her.”
Looking at Bethy, Pomella was reminded of how she’d always wanted hair like her friend’s. Her own shoulder-length dark-brown hair was nice enough, but it just wasn’t as pretty. Pomella wondered again, as she often had, if red hair would look good against her own darker skin. If she couldn’t change her hair’s color, she could at least grow it longer, like the merchant-scholars and nobles did.
And the Mystics.
Bethy’s eyes shone above her smile in the moonlight. “Danny AnStipe was looking at more than my hair just a little while ago. After the play, I’m taking him to the underworld.” She grinned knowingly.
Pomella humored her with a smile. Danny AnStipe was probably the handsomest boy their age in Oakspring. But despite this, Pomella had never been as drawn to him as she had to a certain other.
Bethy stepped back and pulled open the cloak so Pomella could see the full dress. She leaned in with a cunning smile on her face. “Mhathir made the cloak and helped me with the dress. But I lowered the neckline.”
Pomella gaped at her. “Bethy!”
She waved Pomella off. “Yah, yah, I know. She’ll buzz like a honeyhive when she sees it. Oh, and Fathir forged a real iron sword for the play! But I’m not allowed to touch it until the play begins. I listened to him about that because I didn’t want to kick my luck too much. I saw Sim eyeing it hungrily, though.”
“I wish I had your confidence,” Pomella grumbled.
“Come on,” Bethy said, tugging Pomella’s sleeve. “We shouldn’t dawdle like ganders. I need to—”
“Bethilla!” called a man’s voice. They turned just as Bethy’s older brother, Simkon, stepped out of the light, peering into the shadows where the girls stood. Pomella thanked the Saints that she’d managed to get her dress on before all these people showed up.
Not that she would mind if Sim managed to glimpse her wearing slightly fewer garments than normal.
Seeing the girls, the older boy strode over. Bethy snickered when she saw her brother. He wore a makeshift laghart costume crafted from a pair of green-dyed pants, along with a shirt with scales stitched into it. A ridiculous, vaguely lizard-shaped leather mask covered most of his face. Pomella grinned. He was meant to be the leader of the forty lagharts from the Brigid legend, and it was funny looking.
“Hi, Pomella,” Sim said, only briefly meeting her eye. “I was looking for Bethy.”
“I’m right here,” Bethy said, crossing her arms.
Sim stared at his sister. “What did you do to your dress? You can’t go onto the green like that!” He reached over to tug her cloak closed.
Bethy slapped his hand away. “Don’t order me around, lizard-boy!”
Pomella rolled her eyes and eased between them. “Your fathir will give both of you lip if you don’t hurry. I’ll catch up as soon as I put this laundry away. I don’t want it to gather biterbugs.”
Bethy glared at her older brother. “Fine. Hurry, though, Pom. The baron’s daughter is here. Let’s go, scale face.”
Pomella’s face blossomed into a smile. She’d forgotten that Lady Elona was coming today. The girl had a fascination with the Myst, and for the Springrise festival. For the past two years she’d insisted that her fathir, Baron AnBroke, allow her to celebrate with the commoners. The rumor around Oakspring was that Elona planned to become a Mystic’s apprentice. Pomella suppressed a pang of jealousy. Maybe Elona would show them the Myst tonight.
Sim lingered and removed his mask with one hand, revealing a head of tousled, straw-colored hair. Pomella bit her lip upon seeing his strong jaw and piercing eyes.
He looked down at the ground and cleared his throat. “I like your dress. It’s pretty.”
“Thank you,” Pomella replied, cautiously waiting to see where this led. She’d known for years that Sim returned her affections for him. Recently it’d become more obvious, which Pomella didn’t mind. But things had become awkward after he’d found her trying to read noble runes by the Creekwaters last week. She prayed to the Saints that he wouldn’t bring it up.
He took a deep breath and gazed down at her. “I was wondering if we could walk tonight, after midnight when Springrise arrives. Walk and, um … talk.”
Excitement and anxiety swirled inside Pomella. She forced herself to meet his gaze. Most girls her age in Oakspring found Sim handsome, but she was drawn to his humble blue eyes and gentle manner. They had been through so much together. In a strange way, Sim probably knew her better than anybody, including Bethy. Normally, Pomella would gladly accept any time alone with Sim. But right now, she was just too confused to know what was supposed to happen next.
She opened her mouth to tell him so, but his pleading eyes made her hesitate. “Perhaps I will, yes,” she said. He’d only asked her to go for a walk. She could handle that. Walk. And talk.
It was the talking that worried her.
Sim frowned. “So … did you just answer ‘yes’ or ‘perhaps’?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Yes, you answered, or is ‘yes’ your answer?”
She pushed him gently, her fingers sinking into the scaled wool. “Go to the play, Sim,” she said, forcing a smile. She couldn’t help but notice his chest felt very strong beneath the costume. He’d grown a lot in the last year, especially in the shoulders. That was certainly a clip in his favor. “Go slither around your sister like the laghart you’re supposed to be. I need to put these clothes away. We’ll walk after.”
His lips parted into a charming smile. “I’ll see you then. Oh, and the embroidery on your dress looks very nice.” He ducked around his fathir’s smithy toward the bonfire and celebration.
Pomella sighed. She picked at her ivy embroidery. Grandmhathir was right. Pomella would just have to focus on her other talents.
Lifting the basket, she hurried toward the house. She’d just have to hope that Fathir was at the bonfire by now.
As she neared home, her garden came into view. A bursting array of flower bushes, vegetable patches, and even a few fig trees surrounded the house, seemingly trying to encroach on the little wooden home. Barrels in various stages of construction or repair stood along the side of the house, waiting for her fathir to complete them. They huddled together as if seeking protection from the overwhelming onslaught of Pomella’s garden.
She passed the towering plants, enjoying the wild aroma of her spring flowers. Beets and carrots, yams and potatoes, all flourished under the soil in carefully plotted rows of dirt, already showing their first shoots, way ahead of anybody else’s efforts. The garden had been Grandmhathir’s once, starting as just a tiny patch by the front door. Pomella’s heart ached every time she thought about how her grandmhathir would never see what the garden had become under her care, nor would she ever hear about all the villagers that came from Eldleaf and Whissting Ford who had come to see it with their own eyes.
Stepping across the tiny porch, Pomella ducked through the front door and set the basket atop the carved table Fathir had made. A quick peek around the house told her Gabor wasn’t hiding. She found her brush and tidied her hair. It fell nearly to her shoulders now. She grudgingly admitted that maybe her fathir was right, that maybe she’d have to trim it soon if she didn’t want the Watcherman lecturing her on commoner appearance laws.
Outside, she heard the villagers settle as the Toweren began. The Watcherman always began the saga, setting the stage on the village green with his charming voice. She barely heard his words at this distance, but mouthed the lines from memory anyway.
Come follow me
On memory free
Of Brigid old
And tales long told
Of abandoned hearth
And tiresome trails
In soaring Tower
Her child pales
Caught by death’s dark power
Pomella set the brush down and hurried out the door, toward the green. Her grandmhathir had always said theToweren was written to be sung. Pomella wished she could hear it performed that way. Strolling to the green, she sang the next stanza, trying to find a tune of her own for it.
“Come search with me
Across the sea
With Brigid sold
Her sad tale told
Of a master’s demand
From Tower steep
‘A branch of banes
Or I will ever keep
Your son in chains’”
She scowled to herself. Her tune wasn’t quite what she wanted. She loved coming up with little melodies and singing. When she did it well, it drew people’s attention. She’d developed a reputation for it in Oakspring, until her fathir strictly forbade her singing around others.
She arrived at the green just as Bethy slipped into the grassy clearing, standing alone in a wide circle of torches. Pomella’s friend slinked around the grass barefoot, pretending to swim in darkness, playing out Brigid’s search for the entrance to the underworld. Pomella edged her way along the back of the crowd, hoping to get a clear glimpse of Lady Elona.
She caught sight of her brother, Gabor, up ahead. He and some of his twerper friends crouched behind the crowd, huddled over what she suspected was a gaggle of pranks. On the green, Bethy asked the Nameless Saint where she could find the the entrance to the underworld.
“Gabor!” Pomella hissed, trying to catch his attention. If Fathir couldn’t keep Gabor out of trouble like Grandmhathir had, then Pomella would have to do it herself.
Lady Elona, small and delicate, not much older than Gabor, played the Nameless Saint and wore a stunning silk and gossamer gown with faerie wings and face paint. Dark, shimmering hair with delicate emeralds woven within cascaded down her back nearly to her hips. She answered Bethy with a musical voice that sounded like tinkling bells. “Beyond the veil, by my eyes, to faerie skies, seek and find!”
Gabor looked up at Pomella and grinned like a luck’n. Pomella hesitated, torn between discovering what mischief he was up to and watching the play.
A soft glow emanated from the stage, drawing murmurs from the crowd.
Elona lifted her hand. Thin strands of light spun above her palm, weaving a flower shaped like a Mothic knot. Its shimmer gleamed on her pale skin.
Pomella forgot Gabor and stared in wonder as the little girl summoned the Myst. At least, Pomella assumed it was the Myst. What else could it be? The flower spun and lifted, drawing all eyes upward. Voices flew from the flower, filling the village with soft singing. The music resonated with something inside Pomella, coaxing her to join with its melody. A desire arose within her, steady and burning, to know how the girl did that.
By the Saints, if only Pomella weren’t a commoner. She didn’t really mind keeping her hair so short, but it seemed silly that she couldn’t keep it longer like a noblewoman. Pomella had never known the feel of silk, either, but how could she miss what she’d never known? She wished she didn’t have to try to teach herself to read noble runes in secret, and that people would believe her about seeing silver animals in her garden and in the forest. But most of all, she wished, desperately, that she was allowed to learn of the Myst.
A low rumble filled the village.
The shaking wasn’t gentle, like the Mystic flower, but was a heavy, deep tremor that quickly escalated into a chaotic quake. Somebody screamed. Panic raced up Pomella’s spine.
Villagers bumped her as they ran past, but Pomella could only look toward Elona, the girl’s face paling with fear. The flower vanished, like a flame snuffed by wind. Beside the noblewoman, Bethy fell backward, tripping on her cloak.
Grass churned and surged upward, shaping itself into a massive form. The smell of freshly turned dirt wafted over the green. Soil and stone rolled together, forming broad arms and shoulders. A head, tilted down, gathered dirt and grass. Pomella felt a chill of terrified fascination as a long beard of leaves wove itself around a face.
Several people dove to safety or fled entirely. Watcherman AnGent moved quickly despite his bulk, yanking Elona out of the way. Sim rushed to help Bethy scramble away from the rising figure. It towered over them, twice the height of any person.
A rounded crater now existed where the green had been, its soil forming the creature before them. On the far side of the decimated stage, Pomella saw her fathir staring with wide eyes. Despite the chaos, an irrational worry came to her mind that he’d punish her for wasting money on her festival dress.
A gray-haired old man, Goodman AnMere, pointed at the creature. “The Green Man! I sees the Green Man!”
The creature’s head lifted, revealing eyes of polished stone, seemingly pulled from deep within the ground. His mouth opened and a voice thundered across the remains of the green.
“Who is the Watcherman?” he boomed.
Pomella had heard stories of the Green Man, and nobody except a skeptic or dunder denied he was real. But she never, in her whole life, expected to actually see him.
Goodman AnGent stepped forward, his bushy brown beard jutting out. “I am Watcherman Argeleff AnGent. I represent this village.”
“By Saints, th’ Green Man has returned!” Goodman AnMere shouted, clapping his hands.
The creature’s face softened into a smile, the dirt shifting like skin and muscle. “So I have.”
Somehow, his smile and easy manner calmed Pomella’s nerves. It must’ve had a similar effect on the other villagers, too, because all around her people eased back toward the place where the stage had stood. Some dusted themselves off, while others rounded up the children.
“Your timing is poor, Green Man,” said the Watcherman, crossing his arms. “Fifty years absent and you choose to arrive during our Springrise feast. You interrupted Lady Elona, and the Toweren.”
The Green Man bowed, loose grass fluttering off him. “Oh, so I did. Forgive me, Lady and Watcherman, but I bring a timely message.”
Elona’s face lit up. “Is it from the High Mystic?”
Watcherman AnGent held up a steadying hand toward the baron’s daughter, clearly trying to keep her back but not wanting to overstep his position. She was a noble, after all.
“Yes, I bring news from the Mystwood,” the Green Man said, sweeping his gaze across everyone gathered.
The villagers hushed. Somewhere in the crowd, a mhathir scolded her child in a whisper to keep quiet.
“A new High Mystic has been anointed. By the grace of the Myst, Mistress Yarina Sineese now occupies Kelt Apar. It is she who sent me here to summon one of you.”
More murmuring. Pomella’s heart twisted as she saw the joyous expression on Elona’s face. The noblewoman’s time had come. Her entire young life had been focused on this moment, waiting for the opportunity to rise above even the nobility and become something greater.
Elona wrung her hands. The Green Man waited until only drifting sounds from the forest and the crackle of the bonfire could be heard. Even the wee tykes held their breath.
“The High Mystic summons Pomella AnDone.”
Copyright © 2015 by Jason Denzel