I almost died on the day I learned my father's name, but for the curse he left sleeping in my blood.
My half-sib Yma found me dozing in a tiny sunlit niche on the clifftop. My latest refuge from the twins' teasing, the shallow cave was high enough for me to see lavender-blue sky and the turquoise grasslands south of our terraced cliffs and canyons. A red sandstone outcrop above shielded the niche from storms. Cool breezes swept my red-black fur first one direction, then another, soothing my headache until Yma brought it back.
"Tel!" Yma's treble voice echoed off stone. "I smelled you on the trail. Where are you? Namut and Khais said I couldn't climb so high, but I showed them."
"Go away, Yma." I groaned. My worst rivals were the fleabait offspring of my mother's second-in-command. I was up a cliff because they were scared of heights.
A dark honey-brown muzzle followed, peering around the entrance. "Oh, I like this nest! Your best yet." Ten years younger and already two-thirds my size, the cub spilled uninvited into my niche. Yma snuggled against me, and sniffed at the fur along my back and shoulders. "What changed today, Tel?"
I felt no new aches from my hips, hind legs, or tail. The top of my muzzle stung, where a bud of sore flesh gave way to half an inch of dark red horn.
"Are you going to be a man or a woman?"
"I don't know yet." At seventeen, I should have already Changed to a haanha, or hunting-woman. Or a lithe wanderer-male. Yma and I were cubs of the Singing People, the Sonnaroi. As children, we were slender and four-footed, our low-slung long bodies tapering into plumed tails. We still sang in single tones. When we grew up, ah, then we'd have four sweet voices layered in chords. Even better, we'd learn all the adult songs and legends...
Yma chirped, "When will you know?"
"About five heartbeats before you do. Let me sleep."
"My back stings. I got burrs."
"You rolled in the bite-grass again."
"Ask Urrazhe to get them out."
"You're better at it."
I was, too. My paws were the slimmest I'd seen, with the innermost talon bent at a different angle from the other members of my Red Hills clan. Even my shoulders and elbow joints were looser, giving me a tendency to trip when running on all fours, but I could grasp things more easily. Like my uncle Forlian, I was a useful freak.
I'd just finished with the burrs tangled along Yma's spine, when Urrazhe's impatient chorded yowl floated up the canyon.
"Oh, almost forgot. Mother wants you." My sib muttered, then yawned, then lolled belly-up, tail-plume and all four paws twitching in dream. Yma would be safe alone. Not even a carrion-bird could get underneath the niche overhang.
My trail dropped along fissures in the rust-and-cream sandstone. I didn't see my mother's motionless body blended against a rock spur, until the cliff opened large blue-purple eyes and said "Light-on-Water, do not run so fast."
I jumped, recovered without my forepaws taking too much weight. "Yma made me late."
Urrazhe flowed into motion ahead of me. Her tall, whisker-fringed ears flicked back in a laugh, and her tail-plume whipped lightly across my nose. "I allowed for that."
In her, I saw my future if I Changed female: long tapering tail, two strong hind legs, deep fur ruff protecting neck and throat, a sharp little horn jutting up halfway between nose and forward-facing eyes. I'd be smaller than Urrazhe. My mother was large among females, and a mighty fighter; the rock-dragon trophy skull guarding our favorite lair was her kill from long before I was born.
Without turning around, she said, "I'm visiting Iraedha about the drought. You're coming with me."
"The bare-skin? How can she help?"
When my mother had been young, two centuries before, the Red Hills had been swathed in waterfalls and ferns. I grew up in a desert where clouds were rare and heralded violent storms. Streams dwindled every year. This year, the largest herds moved east to far plateaus the hunting-women couldn't reach in less than a day's run. For the last two years we'd eaten more insects and still-tender bark, than live meat. More often than not, we dug into canyon and cavern floors for water. We rolled in dust to thwart the mites in our fur. My clever forepaws earned me tolerance from itchy clanfolk.
Urrazhe sniffed the wind. "This drought feels wrong in my dreams. Weather made by witchery, I think."
"You believe in magic, now?"
"I have always believed in magic. That's why I never allowed it here. Iraedha will know more about witches and weather."
The Red Hills pushed out of the blue-green plains in tilted blocks. North lay a desert of poisoned yellow sand and black baneflower thorns just as deadly. We lived in the southern cliffs, and hunted the grassy prairies above. The bare-skinned Sirrithani claimed the plains and the smaller sandstone blocks jutting from the grassland. Iraedha the Sirr hermit lived between the territories, in a vale watered by a still-trickling stream.
The trail, no wider than my body, switch-backed from one ravine wall to the other. The stream cut it in six places. Urrazhe jumped the channel with her usual ease, leaving me behind. At the third crossing I hurried, annoyed that Yma was better at scrambling along cliff trails.
I half-skidded along the next switchback, leapt the fourth crossing, and came down too hard on my left forepaw.
One heartbeat to decide: hold the landing and break my wrist, or fold my body around the hurt and hope to recover from the fall. I rolled back into the stream. Dammed by my body, cold water rushed over me, finding my nostrils and gasping mouth. I tried to climb out. My injured forepaw couldn't grip. Gravity and water pressure swept me down the steep channel.
Between blinding water and bruising impacts, I caught glimpses of stone and sky. I bounced off a rock that tossed me skyward and sideways. I saw a blue-green tangle of bitterbark shrubs along the steep bank, and lashed my tail out to guide my awkward flight.
When I hit the shrubs only my good forepaw snagged a branch. I slung around and felt a new, deep pain in the crease between my right hind leg and abdomen. White splinters and ragged teal needles glowed in sunlight as they fell past me into the stream. My pulse roared in my ears like the water.
I hung breathless, skewered on a broken branch. I smelled water on stone, sun-warmed bitterbark resin, and my own blood.
Urrazhe's eyes showed white around the edges in distress. She keened, rocking back and forth on her hind legs, "Anelkir, I've lost your child. To a fall! Oh, damn you, Vathaea -"
"Mother," I croaked.
She lunged into the shrub, which was leaning with my weight. One of her hind feet held me flat against the crumbling rock and tough roots. She bit into the branch, snapping it off just outside my wound. Then she dragged me back onto the trail. She sniffed at the wound, angling her head to bite again at the splintered branch.
"Don't," I said. "It's in the artery. I'll just bleed out faster."
"I'll get Iraedha," said my mother.
I felt a coldness trickling inside me. "Stay."
Urrazhe licked my muzzle, blinking back tears. I had rarely seen my beautiful, proud mother cry, and never in front of our little clan.
"Forlian says when we die, we sink into the world's heart to be judged by the Sleeping Goddess, and we come back in different bodies," I whispered.
"He needs to believe that," she said. "Gods are useless or fickle. When we die, we die. I'm sorry I didn't give you a better life, my little Bloodshadow."
"You let me live." I knew the rumors, how other females in the clan had had begged Urrazhe to slay her deformed infant at birth.
My mother curled around me, sharing warmth. "You chattered like a three-year-old before your first summer. Why squander an infant with brains?"
YOU ARE READING
The Sleeping Goddess picks Tel to be her champion and spy. It's not mutual. The accidental shapeshifter only wants to find her absent father, and learn to control the more horrible magics that will get her executed if she reveals them. This isn't he...