Walks Before Greatness
by Kate Marshall
Ainara's mouth could not be blacker if she'd been suckled on a lump of coal. Even
her teeth were black, and her tongue. But her skin was cave-fish pale, so white
you'd think it could not bear the light.
It was a sign: she would be great.
When she was seven she went about with a king-killer snake as a wreath about her
neck, and was never bitten. A year later she walked from the forest with an
honor-guard of spotted wolves, who licked her fingers and melted away. She could
twist her hands in the air and loose the clouds, or puff her cheeks to call a rain.
I was born breach with my hand tangled in Ainara's hair. My people called me
Tanith, Walks-Before-Greatness. Each morning I stepped out from the house our
mother built of bent bones and mud, lifted dust-brown arms to the sun, and sang. I
sang every dark-eyed child awake, every dog, every cow and bull. I sang welcome
to the sun, and to Ainara.
I might have hated her. The tales our grandmothers told were full of brothers who
turned axe or club or flint-tipped arrow against one another, or sisters who laid ears
flat to the ground to hear the serpents speak of poison. My sister was great, and I
was only the one who walked before her.
But I did not hate Ainara. I was sure our tale would not be added to those. I loved
her. I would have dyed the path before her with my blood if she asked me.
I was so sure we would be different.
In the dry season of our sixteenth year I was binding straw into plaits to be carried
to the men's village when Ainara approached with her pale cheeks flushed pink. I
didn't pause in my work, but kept my fingers twisting the straw as I spoke.
"I know that look, Ainara. And I know you cannot keep a secret behind your teeth
for long. Tell me."
She sank to her haunches beside me and tugged on her lip, trying to hide the grin
that turned her cheeks round as ripe apples. "There is a man in the woods," she
"And? There are forever men in the woods." I bound the plait and heaved it to the
side. I had my share of visitors, bearing the blue-beaded necklaces of the
unpromised. As Ainara's sister, I would be no second wife or concubine. The men
who came courted me like a princess, and I had woven new baskets to hold their
Ainara had no suitors. She was to be great; she had no need of a husband.
"He is different. He is not a person."
"A devil?" When the devils, with skin like lake-clay and thick bodies, came in
groups, carrying spears, we fled into the woods. But when one came alone, a boy
on his ritual or a lost warrior, we gave him beer and dried meat and pointed him
toward home. When I was a child I hid at doorways to hear their stories, tales of
what lay beyond the village and the woods. Beyond the only world I was permitted
"Not a devil. Something new. He is caught in Kadara. You must sing him free."
I shook my head. "This is one of your games, and I don't have the time."
She tugged on my hand. Her palms were soft, like a child's. "Tanith, please. If
night comes he will not be safe."
I sighed and stood. A few yards away our cousin Gemi played with his half-grown
hound. I whistled to him. "Bring this straw to Second Grandmother. Ainara is
Gemi was still young enough that his eyes turned round and bright as river-stones
at this pronouncement. In two more years he'd start wearing a cloth at his hips and
only shake his head when such things happened. For all her greatness, Ainara was
such a child.
She led me down the stone-lined track to the river crossing, where the daily tramp
of cattle turned all to knee-sucking mud. A bridge of logs and woven sticks kept
our feet from the mire, and on the far side we split from the cattle-track and took
the bent-grass path toward the men's village.
"Are you certain it isn't Tain, doing one of his voices?" I asked. "Or Dendi?"
"It's not one of our men." Ainara cut me with a look. "Hurry." She veered from the
main track, toward the line of trees that marked the forest's edge. I hesitated. I
could sing to Kadara and he listened to me. But I was not great. The forest would
kill me if it could.
"Tanith," she said, her white hand held out.
I took it, and went with her among the whispers of the woods.
It did not take us long to reach our destination. In the roots of Kadara, I could just
see the figure of a man. The roots had pulled him in quite far, and the shadows hid
his features. He had probably laid down by the clear pools that sprang up around
Kadara's thickest roots. He would have smelled the thick, sweet scent of the white
flowers that spread thin nets across Kadara's ridged roots. He would have
wondered why he was suddenly so very tired.
"Good evening," I called. "My sister tells me you are not a devil." I spoke the
half-tongue code we shared with the devils, and which they shared with those they
claimed lay beyond them.
"No," he called back. "But I speak their language well enough." He spoke
haltingly, dropped whole sounds and stretched his vowels. "I hope you will help
me. I believe I am standing on bones."
"Most are very old," I said. I bent and scraped moss from the ground. Underneath I
found a thumb-thick tuber, which I sliced open with my bone knife. A milky fluid
oozed from the cut and filled the air with an acrid scent. I smeared it under my
nose. Ainara did not need it. We stepped forward together, and though I smelled
the dream-deep blossoms, I remained alert.
"I do not know how I came to be in here," the man said.
"Kadara is always hungry. He doesn't need to eat, but he is greedy." I put my hand
to a root thick as my waist. I could have stood on Ainara's shoulders, and stood
two warriors on my shoulders, before any hand could touch the main trunk of the
great tree. "I will free you, but you must tell me what you are."
"My name is Marlis. My . . . my family," he said, clearly not satisfied with the
word, "are called Luskari."
"I do not know them." Old curiosity flared. I cast it away. There was no use in
"You see?" Ainara said. "Something new."
"I am young," I said. "We will ask the grandmothers."
"I don't think the Luskari have come here before," the man said. "Not unless they
were as lost as I am."
I chuckled and stretched my other hand to the root. I sang. It was a deep song, a
plea for Kadara to release his meal. I promised him a fawn at the next festival
night. I promised him more songs, and my tears, and garlands of flowers from the
foothills he could never see. And slowly, so slowly, the roots shifted. They pulled
and pushed and tugged the Luskari from his place and dumped him in a heap at my
Ainara was beside him in an instant, raising a gourd of water to his lips.
From a distance, he might look like one of us. His skin was much darker, and he
had a hint of the red of the devils, but among my people we would only shrug and
say his great-great grandmother gave more than beer and meat to a wanderer, and
since she was dead it wasn't worth a fuss.
What startled me were his features. His nose was narrow and sharp, like someone
had pinched it and pulled it out from his face. His eyes were rounded, and his irises
were the green of the forest after a storm. He had pierced his ears, but instead of
bone or wood his ornaments were some sort of metal, much brighter than the old
iron tools we'd inherited from a long-dead ancestor. His clothes were rough-weave
of some sort, and covered far more of him than was healthy in the heat.
"We must return before nightfall," Ainara said. He watched her mouth as she spoke
and frowned. "It is not safe," she added.
He got to his feet, and looked at last to me. "What is your name?" he asked.
"Tanith," I said. "And she is Ainara. You can speak to her. She is great, but she
does not bite."
"What does that mean? Great?"
"It means that when the treecats are sucking at our marrow, she'll be unharmed," I
said. "So we should hurry."
Tain met us on the path, carrying a clay jar in one hand. He grinned when he saw
me, but then Marlis stepped from the trees and his head jerked to the side, body
tensing. Even such a quick glance risked contamination. "Tanith," he said. "Did
Kadara catch a devil?"
"He's not a devil," Ainara said. "He's Luskari." She gave the stranger a smile
designed to show off her black teeth. "The men cannot speak to you," she
explained in the half-tongue.
"Why ever not?"
"You're not people," she said, and though his brow creased in puzzlement she
supplied no other answer. It was then I knew just how strange this stranger was;
even the devils knew such simple things.
"He is alone, then," Tain said. He had turned his head just enough to catch the
stranger in the corner of his vision, and his hand strayed close to the hooked knife
at his belt.
"Alone and lost. We will take him to the grandmothers. He is not a threat." Tain's
tension did not ease. I nudged him with my hip. "You have a gift for me."
"Maybe it's for some other girl," Tain said in a teasing tone. He relaxed slightly.
"You are not the only one who likes red honey."
I pursed my lips to keep them from a smile. "Ah, that is a pity. I suppose Ainara
and I will have to eat all the lisi berries we picked by ourselves, since you choose
to deprive us of your company."
The stranger fell back with Ainara. She spoke to him in the half-tongue, repeating
herself patiently when he fumbled. Ainara was not known for her patience.
Distracted, I missed what Tain was saying until jar of honey into my hands.
"There had best be lisi berries for me," he said.
I nodded, lifting the little jar for a sniff, in part to buy myself a moment's silence.
Something did not sit right about the way Ainara looked at the Luskari.
Tain touched my shoulder. His fingertips were calloused from binding arrowheads
to their shafts and twisting bowstring. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like
for those rough fingertips to run over all my body, to brush the skin of my thighs
and the hollow of my throat. Tain was a good friend, but wondering such things
did not make me burn for him. I wanted badly for it to be otherwise. It would make
it easier to know that like Kadara, I could never see the flowered hills. Tain would
gather Kadara's gift for me, and I must be content with stories and wondering.
"He will leave when he knows the way," he said.
I almost protested, though of course it was true. I smoothed the frown from my
face and nodded. "He will go," I agreed, and ignored the inexplicable pang of
We led the stranger up the hill. This late in the evening, more men like Tain would
normally be about, but most of the men's village had emptied for the yearly Long
Hunt. This year Tain had remained behind, thanks to an injury inflicted by a
wounded hog. His upper thigh was wrapped in a bandage, and he still limped a bit,
but he would be well healed by the time the hunt returned.
Gemi and a handful of other children met us first, ringing around the stranger and
clutching at his hands and his clothes. He looked both bewildered and pleased.
Perhaps he would be less pleased if he could understand their shouts, ritual
challenges and promises to scour him and all his kin from the land.
Oldest Grandmother waited by the fire, still standing straight as a spear, though her
skin had wrinkled like fruit left in the sun and her bones were light as a bird's.
"You have brought a devil?" she called.
"He's Marlis of the Luskari," Ainara and I responded together, and she grinned at
me. "A stranger," I added. "Lost."
"Marlis of the Luskari is granted mercy, and sanctuary until he may find his way,"
Oldest Grandmother said, substituting the new word into the traditional pardon.
The children whooped and scattered, now that there was no need to dismember the
intruder. She switched to half-tongue and addressed Marlis. "Come. We will give
you food and drink, and a night's shelter."
"I could use a map as well," he said.
She nodded impatiently and waved us forward. She supported herself on a cane
carved from one of Kadara's smaller branches. It was the first thing I sang for,
back when Oldest Grandmother was Third Grandmother and the previous singer
Oldest Grandmother led us to the communal hut, where the other grandmothers
Ainara sat beside Marlis and instructed him with subtle gestures to remain silent
while we ate. I mouthed Tain's name to one of the women serving us so she would
know to provide him with a bowl. She smiled and made the fingers-to-lips sign for
a besotted man. I blushed and returned to my food. I had not discouraged Tain; I
could not bear to think of him giving up his visits. But I thought of him as a
brother, and felt guilty knowing his thoughts were so different.
When the meal was done and cleared away, Oldest Grandmother lit a sweetgrass
bowl and inspected Marlis. "You are far from home," she said. Her distaste at
mouthing the too-round words of the half-tongue was evident.
"Oh, very far," he agreed. "I come from the --" Here he said something garbled,
like burbling water. "Er -- Traders' Homes?" he suggested. "No, families. Trader
Families. With --" He paused again. "On the water? Travelling?"
"Ships," I supplied. "We have heard of them."
"I was a navigator on one of my family's ships. But we were attacked by
water-thieves." He seemed quite proud of himself at this innovation of language.
"Pirates," I said. "We have heard of them as well."
Oldest Grandmother reprimanded me with a glance. I lapsed into silence. "Go on,"
"The pirates put me on their ship," he said. "To work for them. But we drew close
to the land, and I am a strong swimmer. I leapt overboard. They shot at me, but
missed. They didn't pursue. I suppose I wasn't worth it. I followed the river, and
thought it would bring me to Untaba. The big village?"
Oldest Grandmother shook her head. "You followed the wrong river. Here, you
see." She drew lines in the sand, one for the sweep of the coast, two more for the
great rivers that met it. No one in the village had seen the shores, but the devils had
maps of them. She drew the uppermost river nearly straight across, while the
second arced downward. "You followed this river." She tapped the upper line.
"And you are here." She placed a dot some distance along. "Untaba is somewhere
around here." She jabbed her finger into the dirt by the second river; far from us.
Marlis smiled ruefully. "I think I should change my profession."
"The devils can help you," Oldest Grandmother said. "They wander far more than
we, and they trade with others beyond them. In the morning Tain will take you."
"I should go as well," I said. "Tain doesn't know the tongue."
Oldest Grandmother looked at me with something akin to sadness. "No," she said,
in our language. "You know it is beyond the borders Kadara has dictated."
"Then I will go part way," I said. "Please, Grandmother."
"It will be easier, once he is gone," she said. "This longing is brief. Your duties are
long." There was no more argument to be had.
The sweet-grass smoke curled at the curved peak of the hut, and we fell into
Marlis did not leave the next morning. He woke shaking with chills, unable to eat
or drink anything but water. The dream-deep blossoms sometimes had such an
Ainara stayed by his side. She piled him high with blankets when he shivered, then
laid cool cloths on his brow when his chills turned to fever. She fed him sips of
water whenever he was well enough to take them, and treated him with tenderness
she had given no two-legged creature before. I instructed her in all of it. She had no
need to serve, and she herself had never been ill; she didn't know how to steep
rattle-grass roots in water for the cloths, or how to add drops of minda nectar to his
drink to give him strength.
"I don't understand her," I said to Tain as we reclined on the hillside overlooking
the river. He had remained with us, ostensibly to protect us should Marlis prove
dangerous. I suspected he was using the excuse to be near me.
"She's just --" He touched two fingers to his lips. Besotted.
"Don't be ridiculous. That's perverse," I said. "He's not even a person."
Tain shrugged and leaned back. Down below, several women did their washing in
the river, scrubbing their cloth or laying it out in the sun to dry. Children hardly old
enough to walk toddled between them, and distracted hands swept them back
constantly from the deeper water.
"Do you think you might have twins?" Tain asked suddenly.
I rested a hand on my belly. I did not feel as if anything could grow there at all. I
still looked in wonder at the swelling stomachs of mothers-to-be, not quite
believing that new life could kindle in their bodies. "My mother's line has many
twins," I said. "But I will not have any."
"How can you be sure?"
"When I am married, I will slaughter a calf for Kadara, and ask him that favor." I
curled my fingers against my stomach. There were too many tales. Sisters and
brothers always fighting, for their mother's milk, for love, for power. The singer
who taught me had lived at the expense of her sister; the singer before her died at
his brother's hand.
"You and Ainara aren't like the rest."
"We are lucky. My children might not be."
"Your children are already lucky," he said. "Because they will be born to you." He
took my hand. A single blade of grass caught between our palms, rough and
sharp-edged. It did not matter. In this moment, at least, I wanted him to tie his
beads around my neck, to ask for my hidden name. In this moment, I would have
But all moments are fleeting.
It was three days before Marlis was himself again, and he was too weak for the
long journey that would lie beyond the devils' village. The grandmothers agreed
that he could remain until he was fully recovered. Ainara shone like the moon at
the announcement. Tain glowered and went to speak to Oldest Grandmother alone.
When he returned his cheeks were dotted with yellow: dried-root pigment mixed
with the whitish clay of the nearby lakebed. The dots formed three lines, following
the curve of his cheekbones and bisecting his face. They warded him against
"I do not like him being in the camp," he told me. "I applied for permission to
remain as a guard until he leaves."
I watched Ainara and Marlis by the communal fire-pit. She was teaching him our
language, a process that involved much pointing and laughing on her part. Though
the night was warm, Marlis clutched a red blanket about his shoulders. His clothes
had been ruined in the course of his illness, and he wore only the hip-cloth of our
men; it seemed to make him uncomfortable. I thought it would be easy enough to
make him a simple garment, loose enough that the heat would not overwhelm him.
My mind wandered too much, with Marlis here. I turned my attention back to Tain,
and tried to ignore my sister's laughter.
Marlis came to me while I ground dry root for a poultice; Tain's leg was not
healing as quickly as I liked. Marlis sat beside me, splaying his legs and propping
his weight on his hands behind him. I let my braids hang around my face as a
curtain, hiding the flicker of my eyes as I watched him.
"I have been speaking to Ainara," he said.
"You are twins, she says." He waited, but when I said nothing he pressed on. "And
you sing to that tree, out in the forest." Again I said nothing; he already knew the
answers. I wouldn't waste air on a response. "We have people like you where I
come from. Singers."
"What do they sing to?"
"In the empire they sing to stone. My family sing to the sea. I don't think I've
heard of anyone singing to trees before."
"I don't sing to trees. I sing to Kadara. He's only one tree."
"Elsewhere, singers begin as twins in the --" He did not have the word, but
gestured to his own torso. "But when they are born, only one survives. The singer."
"It is different with us, then," I said. "Our singers are always born with twins.
Alive." I did not tell him that in all the tales, this did not last.
"That is what I am wondering about. I do not know much about such things, I
admit. But my understanding is that the singer only has the power of her songs
because she has taken in the life of her twin. And they can sing many songs, do
many things with their power."
"I can only sing to Kadara. Ainara is the one who is great. She can do much. You
should speak to her." I did not truly want him to leave. I liked his voice, even the
way he stumbled over the simplest words.
"She is kind," he said.
I swallowed a laugh. "You are the first to say so. She is great, but she is also a
child. Greedy. Impetuous. She cannot focus on one thing for more than a heartbeat,
and she knows only how to speak, not how to listen." I cut off the litany of
Ainara's flaws, my cheeks flushed. All were true, but I had no right to speak of
them to a stranger. "I love my sister," I said.
"Don't worry. I have five brothers," he said. "I am curious, though. Are the twins
of your singers always great, like Ainara?"
"They all have some skill," I said. "But there have been few like Ainara."
He rubbed his cheek and stared out over the hills, seeing nothing but his thoughts.
"I wonder," he said, but did not finish the sentence. Ainara approached, carrying a
shallow basket of lisi berries. Her hands and lips were stained with the juices; she
had been picking and tasting, most likely all day to get a basket that full. I
straightened up from my work. "You had best fetch Tain," I said. "His heart will
break if we eat those without him."
"You are the one who should be concerned with Tain's broken heart," Ainara said.
"I have my own to tend to. Marlis, come. Taste these."
And then I understood. She wanted him to stay. I wanted him to leave -- and I
wanted to leave with him.
He will go, and all will be as it has always been, I told myself, and turned back to
Marlis did not leave. His sickness made him too weak for travel still. I brewed him
tea to help him sleep and sat up with Tain outside the hut we had given over to the
Luskari. Tain had sent Gemi to the men's village to fetch his arrow-making
supplies, and he had quite a pile growing beside him. When I had watched him
long enough to learn the trick of it I started in on his supplies myself. He grumbled
at first, but he found no fault in my work and soon we worked in rhythm with one
"Ainara is in love with him," Tain said after a time.
"When he looks at her, he sees a child. He doesn't see the way she looks at him,"
"That is good," I said, fighting to keep my voice light. "She might as well marry a
wolf, after all."
Tain shrugged. He had odd ideas about the devils and those beyond them,
sometimes. They bled our blood, but they were not Kadara's people; Kadara's
people were the only people. And yet, perhaps Tain's odd ideas were closer to truth
than foolishness. My own line had crossed with the devils in the past, and I was no
less a person. "He does not see a child when he looks at you," he said.
"Good! I'm not a child."
"That's not what I mean." He jutted his jaw forward, then clicked his teeth. "He
looks at you the way I look at you. And you look right back."
"That's not true."
"You don't want to be my wife," he said.
"There is no one I want more." It was true, in its way.
"That's not enough," he said. "I might be happy, having you, but you wouldn't.
You should be with someone whose eyes you can meet with equal fire." He
gathered up the arrows we had finished and stood.
"Tain, wait," I said, but he did not stop.
His footfalls were soft in the dust, and quickly gone.
Ainara wandered off before dawn. I was left to serve Marlis a morning meal.
"Are all Luskari your color?" I asked to fill the silence.
"I'm a bit of a half-breed," he said. "Most Luskari are more like you. But the eyes
. . ." He tapped a finger at the corner of his eye. "Everyone with a claim to the
Luskari name has eyes at least as green as these. What about Ainara? I've seen
others born pale like her, but not with black in their mouths."
If he was so interested in me, like Tain said, why did he keep asking about Ainara?
"Ainara is different. She's great."
"So you keep saying, but I don't think it's true."
I had my knife at his throat before he could blink. "Do not say that," I said. My
tone was warning, not angry. "She is great. It was said at our birth, and it was
written on Kadara's roots. Do you understand?" She was different than the others
that had come before, the sisters and brothers of singers. We were different.
He met my eyes, unafraid. "I won't say it again," he said. I lowered the knife. We
were close to one another. I felt his breath on my face. It smelled of wine and soft
grains. He lifted his hand, and two of his fingers touched my lips.
I laughed at the unintentional accusation. He looked puzzled, but pleased. "I like it
when you laugh," he said.
"We can't," I murmured, and I kissed him. I said it again when he put his hands on
my waist and pulled me close, and when I ran my fingers through his hair and
found it impossibly fine, and when his teeth grazed my collar bone.
And then I pushed him away. "We can't," I said again. "You are not a person."
"I don't understand what you mean," he said.
"You're not people. Like an animal," I said. "Like a devil."
"The devils aren't animals. Neither am I. I'm like you."
I shook my head. "It's not so."
"I want to tell you something, but you have to promise not to use your knife on me
again." There was still good humor between us. I promised, smiling. "I think that
Ainara's power was meant for you. I think that anywhere else, you would have
taken her power before your first breath, and she would have died. Perhaps it has
something to do with Kadara, and why you don't breed outside your own group."
I looked at him askance. "We don't breed," I said. "Cattle breed. Kadara protects
us. If he gave my sister life, I am glad of it."
"But that's not the way it's meant to be," he said. "No -- I'm not saying that
Ainara should have died. But what you have here is different than anywhere else.
There are many people who would want to learn about you. Your knowledge could
be quite valuable."
"That sounds terrible. I just thought that perhaps you could come with me. Find out
more about yourself. About the world. Haven't you ever wanted to see what lies
beyond your borders?"
I drew away from him. I longed for it, but I should have been satisfied with my
singing, with Tain, with the life that lay ahead of me.
"You could be great," he said, but if he meant to tempt me he failed.
"Ainara is great," I reminded him. "I only walk before greatness." I pressed my
palm to his chest, feeling his heat and the strength of his heartbeat. Then I stood,
and went to find Tain.
I dreamed of blood. It gloved my hands and filled my mouth; it tasted sweet. It was
my sister's blood, by my sister was not Ainara, and I was not Tanith. I was some
other singer, or perhaps the singer's twin. One always killed the other. One always
hated the other. But Ainara and I were different.
I woke with Marlis' name on my lips and Ainara's eyes glinting before me in the
dark. She lay on her side, staring into my face. "He's gone," she said.
I shook the dream from my eyes. "Who?"
"Marlis. He's gone."
"He wouldn't leave. Not without --"
"Without you?" She moved closer to me, until her forehead touched mine. "You
tasted him. I can see it on you."
"Oh, Ainara." I sighed. I had been cruel to go to him when I knew how she felt. "I
shouldn't have. I'm sorry."
"It is all right," she said. "He wanted to take you away. Away from Kadara. Away
"I wouldn't have gone," I said. I stroked her bone-white hair, bound in hundreds of
"You would have," she said. "I can see that, too. But now you can't."
It was then I saw the knife she held between us, wet with blood. Her hand, too, was
stained, and the red was ugly against the white. The tip pointed at my stomach, and
for a moment, I was afraid. And then I realized. "Gone," I said.
"I did it for you," Ainara said.
I wanted to kill her then. I knew I could break her grip on the knife. It would be
easy to turn the blade against her, to drive it up beneath her ribs. I shut my eyes and
shuddered with the force of the thought.
"Shh," she said. "It will be all right now."
I kissed her softly on the brow and gathered myself up. She remained, eyes
"It had to be done," she murmured, and a tear slipped down her cheek. I left her
there, both less and more of a child than I supposed, and walked toward the river
crossing. At the bridge I heard a shout, but did not turn back. I walked into the
woods, and toward Kadara. I would not have noticed if a snake were under my
foot, or a pack of spotted wolves at my sides.
I held my breath to keep the dream-deep blossoms from filling my lungs with their
poison, and walked deep among Kadara's roots. They shifted around me, with
creaks and groans that were almost words. Below the center of the trunk the roots
grew thick as my wrist, and as I stood there they wove themselves around me in a
cocoon. I sank to my knees in the wet soil, and put my hands to the woven wall.
When I sang, I only asked why. I offered nothing but my voice, yet Kadara
answered. We belonged to Kadara, the great tree sang. His people; the only people.
He protected us, even from one another, as best he could. He wove the songs of my
people with his, and the songs could no longer harm the children who shared the
But always we killed each other. We shared a womb; perhaps a soul as well. We
could not both live.
If not for Kadara, perhaps I would have been the strongest singer of all. Ainara was
great, but her power was mine. I wondered if I could take it from her, with her
death. I hated myself for thinking it.
Kadara sang and sang. At some point I slept; I cried, too, and pressed my cheek
into the dirt. Marlis was between us. He would have turned us against each other,
Kadara said. Ainara was right to kill him.
His words were not so clear. He was not human, and did not think as I did, but I
felt his fear, and his love, and I understood. And I understood the hatred
quickening inside me. I sang again, pleading for just one tale that did not end in
murder. But Kadara, who had stood for as long as the people's memory stretched,
sang only of sorrow.
I thought that our story would end differently. I still hope it might.
I did not go home again. I knew that if I saw my sister's pale face, or Marlis' red
blood, I would want to hurt her. I did not want to kill her. But someday I would. Or
she would wish to kill me, and the result would be the same; one of us would die.
And so I walked. I followed the river to the devils' camp, where I knew the people
wouldn't look for me for some time. The devils were puzzled, but showed me their
maps. I told them of my sister, who could charm serpents and wolves, and walk the
I travelled alone, and accepted no companions. When I reached Untaba, I heard of
a white-skinned girl with a black mouth who was looking for her sister. I walked
It was the last time she arrived ahead of me. She had known where I was going; I
have not made such a mistake again. But everywhere I walk I tell my tale, and
sometimes her tale has spread faster. They speak of her with wide eyes, and I hear
now that this strange girl, this great girl, can heal with a touch, and see a man's
future in his eyes.
My sister Ainara is great. She chases me across the plains and through the forests;
across oceans, with the Luskari and their like; through strange and winding cities.
She follows me out of love. Out of love, I flee her.
My sister is great, and I walk before her.