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When the warrior loomed in the doorway of my hut, I exhaled with resignation.
Here we go.
“Siena! You are needed,” he muttered, dragging me out without any concern for the well-being of my not quite fifteen-year-old arm. His own arm bulged with muscle, peppered with dark hair and blood spatter. I had trouble keeping up with his urgent stride as he yanked me along.
We approached the compound’s perimeter, where a line of groaning, injured men lay just inside. They had head wounds, deep gashes, bloody punctures—all the usual signs of a pitched battle between tribes.
The warrior tossed me toward them and grunted, “Heal them.”
I fell, skinning the scraggy knees that poked out from beneath my worn, deer hide dress. Wincing, I glared at his boots, too timid to openly meet his eyes. My nose wrinkled at the smell of unwashed fighters, but I had no choice but to begin my task. I cupped one man’s head in my hands. His long hair was dark brown and wild, like all the other tribe-born. I concentrated the healing energy, willing it to flow into my hands, watching as the blood stopped gushing and the laceration slowly knitted together. I shifted to the next man and eased the bleeding from his leg. On the next I soothed away a burn. On and on I went down the line, my energy steadily draining away. I blinked rapidly as my vision dimmed.
By the time I reached the last man, I was dizzy, unable to even stand. He clutched his stomach and shouted obscenities at enemies far away.
“Hurry up and fix me, whelp!” he bellowed.
I placed my hands on his wound, but had trouble summoning any more strength.
“What’s taking so long? I swear you’re slower than a two-legged toad!”
I tried harder, but blackness crowded the edges of my sight. Only a tiny trickle of energy murmured within me.
“You’re useless!” He pushed me aside, sending me sprawling. I must have healed him enough, though, for he sprang to his feet and ran headlong into battle once again. I lay there, breath shallow, slowly slipping away. Someone hauled me onto a shoulder and carried me away as the darkness descended.
* * *
When I was four, I learned about life and death, and then life again. It was my mother’s turn to go out and gather herbs, and I wanted to go with her. I had insisted that I was too big for the nursery and even went to pick up the gathering basket, which was almost as large as I was. She finally relented and showed me how she tied her pale hair back so it wouldn’t get caught by branches. I tagged along, hanging onto the woven grass skirt she wore. I had the very important task of basket carrier, while she picked medicinal herbs, and I did it well until I saw the bird.
It wasn’t a very large bird, but its long claws and curved beak revealed that it was a hunter. I watched as it swooped at a passing sparrow and captured it in its claws. A hawk saw the kill and dove at the smaller one, trying to steal its meal. The sparrow was released in mid-air and dropped into the thick grasses below.
“No!” I cried and dropped the basket to run toward the fallen bird.
“Siena!” my mother called, and started chasing me.
I managed to find the bird amid the grass. Its body was bloody and broken, but still struggling for breath. I cupped the poor creature in my hands, bottom lip protruding as sorrow flooded me, the ache in my chest a gaping chasm. I couldn’t bear its suffering. If only I could do something. Make it better somehow.
My mother caught up to me, pale brows drawn into a tight scowl. Then she saw my stricken face and the bleeding little sparrow in my hands. She put an arm around my shoulder instead of scolding me, and we watched in reverent silence as the bird seemed to shudder in its death throes.
Then something miraculous happened. Its wings quivered and it sat upright onto its feet. After turning its head this way and that, it fluttered away. I gaped as the bird flew to a nearby tree, chirping with newfound life.
I asked my mother what happened.
She told me to swear never to tell anyone about it.
So I didn’t.
It didn’t matter, though, because a few years later, someone else did.
* * *
It wasn’t until the following day that I discovered what the battle was even about. I was heading toward the river to refill my water pot. A guard trailed at a distance behind me, as one always did, to ensure their precious commodity didn’t run away.
The compound sat on higher ground, some distance away from the slow-moving river. It was a cluster of structures, some temporary like tents, and some permanent like mud huts, surrounded by a wooden fence. This fence, comprised of roughly hewn wooden poles planted into the ground about two hand-widths apart, made it easier to protect the perimeter against animals and invaders. Mostly other tribes. Nearly all the Plainsmen lived in tribal compounds like this. My mother used to tell me stories of nomadic tribes who lived in harmony with nature, moving to various locations to follow food sources or weather patterns. It made me wonder what happened to them.
From the break in the perimeter, I shaded my eyes and followed its meandering line across the plain. The sun glinted off its surface like a sparkling snake slithering through the grasslands. The plains stretched all the way to the horizon in some places, dotted only by an occasional shade tree.
As I proceeded to the river, another man fell into step with the guard behind me, his footsteps heavy. “Guard duty again?” His voice was deep and gruff, which I recognized as belonging to Grash. “Are you really that useless and soft?”