The wooden spoon bit Kiona’s palm, but no matter the sharp pain, she couldn’t stop. Her arm grew tired from stirring the peyote tea. Muscles weak, beyond spent of energy and still, her passion pushed her forward. She needed the tea to find the door to the sorcerer Moldan’s cabin.
Grandmother Lerier smoked her pipe. Then, she spoke words through tuffs of smoke on her exhale, “the tea is ready with the shade of an impossibly pink cactus flower.”
Grandmother Lerier’s voice is like grating two rocks together from too many pipes and twice as many barks.
Kiona nodded. This woman raised the girl even when no other Illyrian wanted the strange-looking child. Although no longer young, Kiona still felt like the yellow leaf on a trumpet lily tree.
Illyrian women painted kohl and passionflower powders on their faces. Kiona’s permanently encrusted with mud.
Grandmother Lerier pulled the young Kiona from under a rotting cow as her family, of the Thracians, lay slaughtered nearby.
Grandmother Lerier had said, “pure beauty in a natural Terra Mater way.”
The Illyrians called her clay mask dark magic. Grandmother Lerier protected Kiona, along with the dried mud that never left her face.
Kiona was going to offer her clay mask to Moldan. The magic would be in trade for a baby.
The night outside Grandmother Lerier’s hut darkened. Stars burst from their sleep and shone over the small village.
“This is going to work. I feel it in my soul,” Kiona said.
“What does your husband feel of your plan?” Grandmother Lerier asked.
Kiona silently stirred the pot, prying her thoughts away from the fight she had with Raffi. He slept in their hut, unaware.
“I see,” Grandmother Lerier said.
“What else am I supposed to do? It’s been years, and still, we have no child.”
Grandmother Lerier put the pipe to her lips, inhaled long, then pushed o’s into the air with her words, “Magic has a high cost.”
“I possess the last Illyrian clay mask. What is more valuable than that?” Kiona asked. She swallowed her anger that wanted to bubble.
Grandmother Lerier smiled kindly, “I suppose a child.”
Kiona waved a hand with a gesture saying, ‘you see?’
Her back screamed in pain from the horrible posture, but still, she stirred. “Besides, I may die before this brown goo turns pink,” she said.
The old woman cackled, pulling at her long grey dreads, “at least you would still be pretty.”
“You’re a beautiful soul. You’re the only one here that doesn’t call me ugly,” Kiona said.
“You should have beat them up, as I showed you.”
Grandmother Lerier picked up a petrified stick and whacked the side of the pot. The sound made Kiona jump, hitting her head on the low ceiling. Splinters cracked off and floated into the boiling pot. They caused a ripple that shifted the liquid to an ominous orange before fading once more to bland brown. Kiona sighed heavily, “can you take over, just for a few minutes?”
“The gateway tea needs to be brewed by you with commitment and sacrifice. There is no other way to find the door.”
Grandmother Lerier spat a phlegm ball onto the dirt floor. She grimaced. Her wrinkles sunk so deep there could have been dust at the bottom.
Kiona stopped stirring long enough to massage her achy arms. Grandmother Lerier growled and threatened her with the stick. Kiona quickly picked the wooden spoon back up.
Grandmother Lerier grunted as she attempted to stand in a crouched way. A cascade effect of bones snapping echoed through the cramped space.
“If you didn’t smoke so much, maybe you wouldn’t crack so much,” Kiona said.
The response was a grumbled, “stir.”
Kiona pushed renewed force into the circular motion. Her eyes caught on a tiny flake of mud that broke free from her cheek and danced mid-air. It elegantly floated down like a feather on a silent breeze to land in the pot.
The speck harmoniously melted, forcing the brown to spread out. Soft wisps of a peach hue grew. Kiona stirred faster as the colour shifted to a sunny yellow, and then the life-giving star branched out like a spring blossoming tree. Finally, the liquid top snapped to the pink of a lover’s kiss.
Kiona jumped and tossed the spoon in victory, “Grandmother!”
“Good,” she patted the girl’s back, “very good.”
In the swirl of the newly perfected peyote tea, Kiona smiled with pride at her reflection. Her black hair twisted high into a mohawk braid was elegant. But, unfortunately, the flat surface of her clay mask ruined any facial features she pined to see.
Kiona couldn’t remember a day without the dirt cemented to her face. It was hot and irritating on the best of days. On the worst of days, it pinched every crevasse of her emotions.
Grandmother Lerier shuffled to a shelf and reappeared with a wooden cup. Scooping up the stinky solution, she pushed it into Kiona’s hand.
Kiona pushed Raffi’s forbidding words from her mind. His disapproval is based solely on his fear of a sorcerer. Nevertheless, Kiona knew he would forgive her when she returned with the magic needed for them to procure an infant.
Kiona tipped the wooden cup to her lips. Whisps of rose-coloured steam caressed Kiona’s face as if promising all would be well. But, instead, the smell was horrid, like perfume covering the decaying corpse under the sun’s heat.
She parted her mud lips and poured the liquid into her mouth. Blisters burst immediately on the roof of her mouth, but she was pleasantly surprised it tasted simply of burnt lemongrass growing from cow dung.
The older woman shuffled Kiona out the door, “the time is now. Paddle across the lake and search until the door appears to you.”
Kiona saw Raffi’s grey-fox face appear at the exit of the hut. His kind features shift to a predator scenting blood. She gasped.
“The peyote begins, hurry,” Grandmother Lerier said.
Kiona heard his words whispered in her ear as if spoken now, “You are the last of your kind. This clay mask you wear pays tribute to your lost people.”
Those words hurt Kiona. It made her bitter, making her decision to leave when Raffi was sleeping so much easier. She was jealous, in a way, of his clean face. Like a frozen waterfall, Raffi’s skin is smooth and perfect. Kiona is merely his anomaly.
She would give the clay mask up in a downbeat of her heart for a child. Not to mention the chance to see her natural face hidden beneath.
A strange tingling numb crawled through Kiona’s body. Her limbs moved without the direction of her mind, and her thoughts dulled to a ghost of a dream.
Grandmother Lerier tied a thin water pouch to Kiona’s tan dress just above the swinging strands. “Sole to soul, Mother Nature will direct you from the lake.” She pulled Kiona’s shoes off and pushed out of the door.
Outside, the village was silent. The midnight moon hung low, giving Kiona lots of light. Each footstep toward the lake echoed in her mind with a word.
A child. A baby. An heir for her husband.
A child. A love. A baby to hold high in the village.
A child. A playmate. A friend to swim in the river.
Kiona selected a canoe from the several tied to the beach. Her hand seemed to go straight through the animal skin siding and become a part of it. She clambered into the canoe. Then out of the canoe and pulled it to the edge of the water.
Kiona rowed through clouds made of fireflies in the sky. She smiled at the thought of a bug landing on her bare cheek, at the idea the night air could stab cold needles into her skin.
Dardania is a volatile province in Rome. The Ramnes tribes, which disbanded Moldan long ago, are the most powerful. They don’t ransack for food or wealth. Instead, killing is their day game. At night, they slaughter prisoners and stain their clothes red to be prepared for the next day’s incursion.
Kiona didn’t know why the Ramnes tribe disbanded Moldan, and Illyrians were never ones for gossip.
Thoughts of dangerous lands faded as a colourful, mystical island came into Kiona’s view. Her memory told her it was dark green like any other island, but the peyote lit the area like an iridescent shell on a sunny day.
The moon smiled gently at Kiona before the blanket of the night wrapped over the island. A slap on the side of her canoe made her jolt. Kiona searched the black water but saw only her dirt-crusted face. She paddled harder to the island that was so close. Suddenly, the canoe bumped, causing her to drop an oar. She reached out to pluck it before it swept away, but a tentacle grasped her arm.
The water swallowed her, eating the cry for help. Her air bubbles escaped her wide mouth as something pulled her deep into the murky lake. Kiona twisted around and faced a giant sea monster. His head like an octopus with a shark’s jaw.
Kiona thrashed, trying to escape the tentacles as the monster pulled her straight for his open mouth. The teeth shifted, effectively moving to slice her to pieces. Kiona kicked fiercely, her foot came into contact with his nose. A solid connect, and his tentacle loosened just enough.
Kiona surged to the surface. She was choking and coughing when she broke free. She swam for the island. The monster behind her mistaken the canoe for her body and swallowed it in a gulp.
She connected with land and scrambled ashore as the monster realized his mistake and spat the boat out. It created a loud bang when it landed on the sand next to her feet.
The burnt sands reflected the moonlight like millions of diamonds. The moon appeared closer. Watching.
Kiona’s feet hardly sunk into the damp sands as she ran across the beach to the grass that tickled her toes. She lost her breath as she charged up a hill to the rocky entrance of a cliff. Then, with trees on one side and more water on the other, she headed for the cliff.
Kiona walked carefully to the edge. She looked down and saw a colourful forest: brown, green, purple and sapphire. Stones pulled out of the cliff edge, willing her to climb down. She turned and began her descent.
Kiona’s palms sweat with the first few grasps, then her confidence grew, and her speed picked up. The cliff face moaned as it produced more spaces for her feet to land. She was halfway down when the whole cliff decided it was no longer helping her.
The handholds above creaked back into the stone wall. Kiona felt the rock she held shiver then slid away. She scrambled to place her hand elsewhere. Then her other hand felt the same movement. Her heart slammed against her rib cage, and her whole body violently shook. The peyote coursing through her system tried to calm the worry.
The rock slid back into place, and Kiona was left standing on two rocks with nowhere to place her hands except hugging against the cliff.
A loud crack echoed. Kiona risked a glance down and saw the cliff pulling behind her as bedding pulled from a mattress.
She tipped with the motion, feeling a sickness in her stomach as the world shifted and turned. The rocks beneath her feet sunk into the cliff face, but Kiona laid nearly diagonal now.
She rolled to her back and pushed down toward the colourful forest. Or was it forward now? Her mind spun and cleared at the same time. She slithered along the cliff floor.
“Okay, okay,” she said to herself.
Then the cliff began to lift once more, like a wave tipping.
“Not okay, not okay,” she corrected.
Kiona began to slide. Rocks cut into the backs of her thighs as the incline increased as she sped up. The trees grew closer as the world tipped back to the correct angle. She jumped up and ran the last of the distance.
Her feet landed on solid ground. The cliff stood behind her, laughing with a silent joke.
The trees ahead of her created a rustic doorway for access to the forest.
The wind eerily whistled behind her until she stepped into the tree line. The leafy tops swallowed the moon, leaving no glint of light above. Perfect darkness. Something snapped a twig ahead, and fear flooded in where the peyote was supposed to numb.
An elk bugling shattered through Kiona’s fear that froze her in place. It broke her worry into ice shards, which rained to the ground. The peyote wasn’t numbing enough. Hungry coyotes barked in the distance, which woke a demonic screech of a hunting owl. Kiona shook her head at the impossible thought of hearing saliva drip from a ravenous mountain cat. The peyote was playing tricks with her mind. She knew it’s the creatures you cannot see that are the deadliest to your survival.
Kiona sighed with relief when she saw the beginning of a wooden path. The brown slabs fenced in with thin birch trees cut to three feet tall on either side. Perfectly symmetrical and downright eerie. Kiona couldn’t see the end of the path, but she stepped on anyway. She needed to find Moldan.
Kiona trailed her fingertips along the tops of the cut trees that smoothed to create a handrail. These were young trees, met with a horrendous ending to make this path for Moldan.
A glow ahead. Kiona peeked through the trees and saw a small clearing where a single rose grew. The top of the rose burned gently in the darkness. A light would be so good right now.
She whispered in awe, “a gift from the wilds.”
Kiona took a sip of her water and then clambered over the railing into the clearing.
The fire danced around the flower’s petals without scorching the delicate flora. The flames shifted from a heavenly blue to a passionate red, then an intense orange.
When she arrived in front of the burning flower, she found herself entranced by its beauty, not meant for this dark place. Kiona bent and plucked it from the ground. The flames wavered in the air. It would help aid Kiona in her travels, or so she believed.
She realized her toes felt frozen and near blackened from dirt. She quickly turned to return to the wooden path.
“That’s stealing,” a voice from the darkness.
Kiona tripped, trying to walk and turn at the same time. She crashed hard on her hands. The impact stung her palms, but the flowers continued to crackle and burn.
Was it Moldan? Kiona held the rose engulfed in flames up to lick away the night sky, but Kiona didn’t see a figure anywhere.
“Is someone there?” she asked.
A heavy sigh, “no. Not someone.”
Kiona jumped to her feet. She turned in a circle, “where are you? Step into the light.”
“I cannot step anywhere.”
“Are you Moldan, the sorcerer?” Kiona asked.
The voice made a throaty sound of irritation.
Kiona walked to where the voice had come from and rounded a tree. She found herself standing face to trunk?
It was a tree man!
Unlike the slim birches that created the fence for Moldan’s pathway, this cut tree was massive. It had to be a century-old with charred bark that moved with furrowed brows and a deep frown. His nose was flat and ran the whole length of his trunk body. A short twig sprouted from the left side of his head, in front of the giant ears that stuck out. His arms appeared unmoveable on either side of his body. He made an inaudible sound as Kiona neared him with large sad eyes that followed her movement.
“Oh my,” she gasped, “what are you?”
His trunk fused to the ground with large roots. There was not a flower or fellow tree in reach of him. His bark creaked as he shifted his deep-cut eyes. Grief dripped down his face with sap. Cracks lifted when he spoke, “yes, ‘oh, my’ is correct.”
His words were slow and forced.
Kiona inhaled sharply. She had never witnessed anything like him before, but one name came immediately to her mind, Moldan. “Are you Moldan,” she asked.
“How can you talk?”
Kiona reached to touch the tree bark. She wanted to resolve her curiosity about whether the tree man felt like flesh or wood. The colour of his skin resembled bloody red meat more than brown bark.
“Are you a hallucination from my tea?” she asked.
He laughed, moving only his lips, nose and eyes. The single stick on the side of his head quivered as well. “Sounds like some good tea, but sadly no. I am real. I was once a man.”
The edges of his mouth tried to turn up in a smile as Kiona’s petite hand fell to his cheek.
“You’re no man. You’re a tree.”
“Trees cannot talk,” he countered.
When a fresh sappy tear rolled from the corner of his eye, Kiona knew it had been a long time since he had felt touch. So, she decided not to make a snarky comment back.
“What’s your name, dear sad tree?” Kiona asked.
“My name is Sessile Oak.”
“I’m Kiona, of the Illyrian tribe.”
“You do not look Illyrian,” Sessile said.
Kiona’s lifted her unbending face with the comment, “no, but soon I will!”
“Must be nice to have such optimism,” he said.
She lowered the sheet of face, “how did this happen to you?”
“I’m being punished.”
The sappy emotion rolled over her hand. Kiona wiped it off on her dress. Her hand hit the water jug, and she wondered if she could make him feel better, even for a moment. She dumped the contents on Sessile, wiping away his sticky tears.
Kiona’s eyes met Sessile Oak’s. Like age lines, he had knowledge lines circling his eyes but were mixed with sorrow and showed horrific tales. His face morphed into something grotesque.
Then he spoke, “I made a trade with Moldan. I wanted infinite power. He gave me immortality in the shape of a cursed tree. Every leaf, twig or branch is made for Moldan to chop, mulch, and drain from my soul, effectively stealing my magic. He takes me apart, piece by piece. He cuts me apart whenever I begin to grow again. He takes my magic, leaving me in a frozen hell for all eternity.”
“You’re saying that twig is full of magic?” Kiona asked.
The peyote in her mind told her the answer. She found her hand moving toward the lone stick. She needed all the magic she could get right now. If Moldan denied her trade, maybe this twig would help her have a child? Or, perhaps she was meant to find Sessile, and this stick was going to help her find Moldan?
Sessile Oak rasped as he attempted to move his eyes to follow Kiona’s light steps. A sudden urgency came over her to snap that twig and run. She knew full well he would have no chance of chasing.
Almost as if he read her mind, his voice became frantic as he spoke, “you could take this twig and return it to Moldan’s hut. The magic could save me!”
His voice is frantic. Chunks of bark sailed off as he shook with hope.
“I’m sad for you, Sessile. I truly am. But that was your trade. Magic is expensive, and if you had nothing to offer, why, I’m not surprised Moldan tricked you,” Kiona said.
Sessile’s eyes widen with fear, “I hope you’re not planning a trade with that sorcerer!”
“This clay mask is the last of the lands. I have more than enough to offer without my safety at risk,” Kiona said.
Kiona stepped to the twig. It was within arms reach above her head.
“Kiona, you could save me and then I could help you. We could work together,” Sessile said.
He had a layer of panic weaved in his words. Somewhere, he knew already, Kiona would refuse his shaky offer.
“I cannot risk my chance,” Kiona said.
Her fingers touched the twig. A bolt of energy shot through her arm. The stick wrapped itself around her palm.
“I could try to help….”
Sessile began, but it was too late.
A quick snap and the twig sat free in Kiona’s hand. She felt the power course through her, and a vision of her running to Moldan’s hut to save Sessile swept in front of her sight. After being shown the option, Kiona chose it was far too risky. She turned away from the sad tree man.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, too low for Sessile to hear.
Her feet carried her further away. Kiona heard millions of bark shards falling off as he let out a wailing cry.
Kiona jumped over the railing back into the walking path. Sap bled onto the track as she ran, and worry set into her mind when the young birch trees bled red tears onto the blonde wooden planks. There was an ominous glow ahead.
The brightness grew, shattering the thick layer of clouds. The moon’s grey smile twisted into a frown. The stone sat lower in the sky, warning Kiona of the ticking time toward the devil’s hour.
The peyote added to the glow, shifting the single beam of yellow moonlight to a broad spectrum of all the rainbow colours. The moonlight stretched further. It scattered the darkness. Kiona felt exposed to the threats of the forest walking in the light.
A far-off wolf cry made Kiona’s heart slam in her chest. The white bones that held the sides of her dress closed suddenly felt too tight as if they came back to life and were crushing her chest. The wolf howled closer. Tears welled behind her eyes.
A third scream at the moon sounded like a flying banshee. Kiona saw claws reach out to tear out her throat. She ran.
Sweat, the temperature of snow deep in winter, broke out on Kiona’s skin. The trees made sounds like they were bowing and cracking under a giant’s footsteps. Kiona felt terrified out of her skin, making each movement forced. Decrepit ghosts broke free of their cloudy jails to fly at her in the dark.
Kiona screamed, swatting them away. The burning rose in one hand and the magic twig in the other kept her grounded. A shiver of fear made her neck shake, and the world threatened to tip. Instead, she focused on the echo of her feet smacking hard against the wooden planks.
The path stretched ahead like an unending nightmare. The bleeding trees bowed, slowly eating up the way forward. All the screeches of the night heightened into a single cry of pain. Kiona’s added to it.
The howl grew louder until it transformed from an octane of sound into a spectacular shock of colour. Trapped between the bleeding trees and the wooden path, the bolt of a twisted night scream bounced off the planks. Lilac, cyan and rose twisted together into a braided rainbow of pain and fear.
Kiona pushed her legs to move faster, to break through the thick band of colours. Barriers created by vibrant auras restricted her movement, threatened to stop her entirely so that the screaming banshee ghost would catch her. Kiona forced air into her lungs and pushed harder through the constraint. Finally, she broke through. There was invisible glass inside the rainbow that tore her skin apart.
The air on the other side of the bouncing colour band was thicker than sand. Kiona coughed, trying to breathe. She collapsed to the ground and opened her water pouch with shaking hands. The stream of water made it only partially in her mouth. The portion spilling between her clay-covered lips was refreshing, but the rest splashed on the wood planks. Every muscle in her body twitched from exhaustion.
The path spread to eternity ahead of Kiona, and the bouncing rainbow of torturous colours bounced behind her. There was only moving forward now for the girl that wanted to be a mother.
Kiona peeled herself off the wood. The path is ahead, impossibly dark and silent. She took one step away from the colourful rainbow, then another. She wondered how far she would have to travel when suddenly the blackness in front of her eyes parted like a curtain. It was the door!
Kiona had found Moldan’s hut.
She jumped with glee and shouted out before dashing up to the entrance.
The door sat in an ungodly large oak tree. The twigs hung around the home without a single leaf before sprouting up high into the sky. Branches circled where the moon sat. Faces were carved deep into the wood, glaring at Kiona.
She reached toward a golden handle shaped like a lion’s head. The majestic beauty of the large cat looked so real, Kiona hesitated before she grasped the handle.
The teeth moved on the gold face, pulling into a grin. The lion nodded. Kiona stepped forward, enticed to open the door. She felt warmth travel through her body, melting away the fear that stuck to her edges.
Kiona turned the handle, and the door took over. It swung open on its own accord. The air inside was sickly-sweet air. Kiona felt as though she were walking into a wall of cobwebs.
She stood in a room lit with a single red bulb swinging like a dead man in a noose. The light flooded the area with an ominous blood shade as if setting the scene for murder.
The floor groaned as she stepped further in, letting her hand fall away from the door, which slammed shut.
Shadows shifted malevolently on the bare walls as she examined the room. The oddly shaped furniture carved from bark massed together on every wall. Some were even attached to the walls. A chair swung mid-air. Covered with black leather and tiny buttons, it looked out of place between the wooden furniture.
A small table with colourful glass shards covered the top and hung next to the chair. So, they dangled, but they were also perfectly still. Next, a whole wall shelf adorned with leather-bound books matched the opposite shelf lined with jars of liquid. Kiona thought one had an eyeball and quickly turned away.
Kiona stepped toward the books, intrigued by the strange writings on the bindings. Grandmother Lerier brought home books for Kiona often.
The wood floor had painted exotic flowers with leaves that shook as Kiona walked across the room. Bright pedals climbed onto her naked toes, and Kiona stifled a cry. She tried kicking them away, unsure if this was the peyote in her mind or the floor trying to trap her.
Kiona felt like an ant in this room. Moldan’s world. Kiona suddenly wasn’t sure of this plan.
“Hello, Kiona,” a man said.
His voice sounded like a thunderclap. Kiona jumped, bumping into the bookshelf and knocking several books down. They landed open, staring up at Kiona. The magical painted flowers beneath her feet lifted the misplaced books one by one and put them back on the shelf.
Kiona turned to meet the profile of Moldan. His nose a long gnarly thing. Pocked and nearly rotting off his face. Moldan’s eyes fixed down, examining his hands, “I knew you were coming to see me,” he said without looking at her.
“Are you Moldan?” Kiona asked, to be sure.
“I am. But the real question is, does your husband know you are here?”
Raffi. Her handsome, strong husband sleeping soundly at home had forbidden her from seeing the sorcerer. But Raffi was utterly ignorant that she had disobeyed him. Kiona was confident he would forgive once she came home with the magic required. He may be sad to see the clay mask gone, but he might also be pleasantly surprised to see her natural face.
“Yes,” she said.
“There’s no need to lie.”
Kiona wanted to leave. She forced a manneristic curtesy as Grandmother Lerier had instructed. “Moldan, I wish to make a trade.”
“I don’t want to deal with you,” Moldan said.
He lowered his head, looking at the ground. His arms dropped, and Kiona noticed his skin looked stitched together.
“I implore you to hear my offer,” she said.
“If Raffi knows not of your presence, I want nothing of your words.”
Maybe it was the peyote wearing off or the frustration of what she’d gone through to get here, but Kiona snapped, a little out of character, “You need to listen to why I’ve come all this way!”
“I know why you’ve come, girl,” his voice boomed.
The echo caused knots to spin, revealing faces in the walls that watched. Not Kiona but Moldan, with ghastly eyes. The tree shivered with each breath Moldan took.
Kiona walked to stand in front of the sorcerer. Large black, sore-looking stitches covered his face. They ran in every direction, from his receding hairline to his crocked jaw.
Spit collected at the edges of his mouth as he spoke, “but I don’t think you know why you’ve come.”
Moldan turned away to show only his profile once more. He glared up at the knot faces, which slammed shut. Then the whole hut shook violently. Kiona had to catch her balance from the sudden upheaval.
“Why would I be here then?” Kiona asked.
Moldan’s jaw dropped. The stitches are stretching far and exposing fresh blood. “Because you are desperate.”
Kiona felt offended, “That’s one word. I would say driven.”
“Do you know what these stitches are from?” Moldan asked.
“No, why would-”
“They cut me to pieces. My blood mixed with dirt, and they left. The Ramnes people deserted my corpse for the flies. I prayed to anyone that would answer for help. Only dark magic answered. It helped me stitch back together. I returned to my people, but they called me a necromancer and cast me out,” he said.
He kept his face to the side.
Kiona wasn’t interested in his story but played along, “That sounds horrible,” she said.
“I got them too,” he said.
Moldan waved his hand, and the faces in the bark walls opened wide mouths with their silent screams. Kiona stepped back.
She had to get out of here, “I just want to trade. My mud mask for the magic capable of procuring an infant.”
Moldan lifted his hands to examine once more. Kiona wondered if the bloodstains under his nails were his blood. Or someone else’s.
He turned and lifted a jacket out of a trunk. He pulled it on as it pulled a string of memories from Kiona. She frowned. Why did it look familiar?
Gold buttons ran down the front.
Moldan spoke as he closed the button loops, “it was the clothing that first made you curious.”
Kiona stammered, “pardon?”
“That’s what first brought you to the Ramnes camp. You said you wanted to feel the silkiness between your fingers,” he turned suddenly and grasped her hand, “you were so tiny then.”
Moldan’s eyes rolled over Kiona, making her feel uneasy. She shifted from one foot to the next.
“I’ve never met you before,” Kiona said.
She tried to pull her hand from Moldan’s, but he was too strong. He plucked the twig from her fingers and said thanks for retrieving the magic for him. Kiona scowled.
“What makes you think you know me?” Kiona hissed.
“I don’t think. I know.”
Kiona swallowed hard. “I wish to trade my clay mask of beauty for an infant.”
“What makes you think I want a clay mask?” he retorted.
Moldan strolled across the room to the shelf of jars. He pushed some to the side, picked others up and glanced at the bottoms, then replaced them on the shelf. He finally opened a pot with salted meat.
The scent filled the hut with a rich aroma. Kiona’s mouth watered, and her stomach groaned.
Moldan bit the jerky, then looked at it, “do you want salted meat for that clay mask? That’s all it’s worth.”
Kiona’s face grew hot, her skin prickled with anger, “No! It’s worth so much more. It’s magical. No elements can penetrate it, and no wrinkles would ever alter my face.”
He chewed arrogantly and motioned to another jar, “sweet ginger pieces?”
She shook her head, “I’m the last of my kind. No one else has this clay mask. So, I will bestow the magic to you. In exchange, I want the ability to bear an infant.”
“Oh, because you have everything else you want?”
Moldan stuffed a whole piece of jerky into his mouth. Saliva dripped between the stitches.
“Well, yes. I’m the last of my kind.”
“Stupid girl, of course, I know that!”
The yell caused spittle to fly out with tiny bits of meat from his mouth.
Kiona stumbled back a step, “I don’t care what you’ve done in the past, Moldan. Can you help me?” She passed the distance between them and placed her hand on his arm, “please.”
Moldan glanced down at the burning rose, “what are you planning to do with that?” he asked.
The question caught her off guard, and she hadn’t thought of what to do with the rose. It felt proper in her hand.
“What of it?” she asked.
Kiona tried her best to stand tall when fear of failing threatened to crumble her. She held her ground. Kiona decided she had to convince him the clay mask was unique. “I have a beauty that is not matched by any other. This mask preserves my beauty to last ages beyond my own. Others have jewels and large huts too. Some have black hair, such as mine, but no one holds timeless beauty like this clay mask offers.”
She meant her words to sound firm but cringed at how weak her voice came out.
“I’ve given you your trade once. Isn’t that enough for you?” Moldan asked.
He walked past Kiona to the bookshelf. He removed a book that was shorter than the rest. It was as red as blood with gold letters that Kiona couldn’t read. He brought the book to Kiona.
“I know not of what you’re speaking. Please accept this trade. This mud can be jarred and used in many spells or sold for a high price to another that wants eternal beauty. Maybe she could be your wife.” Kiona said, trying to appeal to his passionate shite. “The clay mask is more than you can ever imagine.”
Kiona’s request felt desperate even to her, and she tried her best to keep the touch of venom out of her words.
“You expect a lot. First, ‘Give me this,’ then ‘take it back,’” Moldan said.
His hands’ movements in the air exaggerated the words, which only angered Kiona more. Then, finally, the layer of grief for her deceased family stripped back, and a memory tried to pull free.
“Can you tell me what you’re talking about?” Kiona asked.
Kiona forgot about the trade. It wisped from her mind just as the flames danced around the rose. Moldan backed away from her. The chair lowered from the ceiling, and he climbed in.
“Well, that rose you hold can show you the truth.”
“Why can’t you tell me?” she asked.
“I don’t want to.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Kiona stammered.
“I’ll take your beauty,” he snapped his fingers, “that book in your hand will give you the magic to have a baby.”
Kiona touched her face. The solidified dirt mask was still there. Stray mud flakes fell but no more than average.
“It takes time. Now go away.”
“What do I do with the rose?” Kiona asked.
“Read the book. It’ll tell you,” Moldan said.
He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. One eyeball peeked through at Kiona as the stitches had come loose.
Kiona shivered from the horror of his face and ran out of the cabin.
Moldan laughed as the door slammed shut behind her.
Kiona ran into the night. The pads of her feet smacked heavily on the wooden pathway. The swatches of bouncing colour were gone. Thankfully. She pretended not to hear Sessile call her name as she planted her feet on the dirt at the end of the path.
She climbed the cliff and ran to the beach with renewed force. She wanted to feel safe again. The memory thread twisted to a rope bunched in her throat. The truth of the clay mask. She swallowed hard, but it wouldn’t move.
Kiona wanted to be in the loving arms of her husband. She would tell him the truth, and he would forgive her, and they would have a baby and be happily ever after.
The night flooded her with emotion. The peyote was long gone, and a new heavy question sat in her chest. The cold air covered her with panic. It seeped into her like water into rocks, making them crack.
Kiona could no longer run. Her lungs burned with exhaustion. So, she walked as the first light smiled on the horizon. It illuminated the white sand beaches. She crossed the familiar coast when it dawned on her that the sun was warming her face. It was warm prickles on her skin, making the flesh feel sensitive. A feeling she had never felt before.
Kiona wiped the sleep from her eyes, and her hands came down clean. No sign of the rusty brown dirt. She blinked away her astonishment and exhaustion.
Kiona’s hands intimately examined her fresh, clean skin. She cried with joy. The mask was gone!
A delighted cry of victory resounded as if it came from the wilderness behind and not Kiona’s mouth.
Her energy renewed, she burst into a sprint, running to the edge of the beach. She slammed onto her knees beside the canoe on the edge of the water. Sand clung to her heels and fell silent as she looked at herself for the first time.
Kiona stared at the reflection. One she had never seen before. She ran fingers over the short hair of her eyebrows. She poked at the small pouches under her eyes. The line of her nose, the heart shape at the top of her lips, all new. She smiled and saw dimples crease underneath the edges of her lips. Soft orange lips touched with a brown hue. Her eyes. She’d always known her eyes, but now they had life behind them.
Kiona climbed into the canoe, careful to protect her burning rose from the water. She’d succeeded! She couldn’t contain her happiness and sang any verse of song she could recall at the moment. She paddled like that for some time before the memory rope began choking her again.
A lump in her throat. Truth is hidden deep in her soul. Moldan said she knew, but she didn’t. Instead, she glanced at the book on the floor of the canoe.
The words on the front were legible now.
A soft current continued moving the canoe toward her home. So, she set her oar next to her and leaned forward to read the words.
Burn this book.
Kiona blinked. She read the words over and over.
Burn this book.
Had it said that before? She didn’t think so.
Kiona picked up the paddle and pushed hard through the water. Why would Moldan give her a book with the magic to have a baby that’s titled ‘Burn this book?’ Did she need to burn it to activate the magic?
In front of her, the sun brightened the sky. Behind her, the green of Moldan’s island dissipated. It looked like a caterpillar bunched up to crawl away.
An eagle flew overhead, crying out the awakening of a new day. New indeed. It was the beginning of a new life for Kiona and Raffi.
But what was it Moldan spoke of?
Kiona put the paddle down again. Finally, she picked the book up, opening it to the first page.
To prevent the sorcerer from taking payment for the infant as requested, burn this book.
Kiona touched her face, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her forehead. She couldn’t imagine giving it up now. Instead, she imagined Raffi’s surprise when he got to see the natural beauty of his wife.
Kiona turned the page.
Payment for magic is never what it seems.
She lifted an eyebrow at this. She felt the smooth glide of her skin upward and loved the feeling. She tested the same with her other eye. It lifted at command. Kiona smiled.
“Not always,” she remarked.
Kiona turned another page.
To unveil truths hidden within, extinguish the rose.
That’s it? Kiona thought it sounded lame. But, no harm, the clay mask was already gone, and she wondered if she felt a little rounder in her stomach. Could she be with a baby already?
She didn’t hesitate to dip the burning rose into the lake water. It sizzled then went out.
Kiona looked back to the book. The words had shifted on the same page.
The memory is yours once more.
A wave of realization hit. Kiona remembered venturing to the camp outside her village. The Ramnes tribe is drinking around a fire, loud and belligerent.
Kiona recalled the other girls in her village calling her ugly. They threw stones and fists.
Moldan had sat alone with his gold button-adorned jacket. Kiona remembered approaching him, fearful. She asked if it could make her beautiful forever. He had inquired what she would give. She said the people of her tribe.
It was their deaths that made her mud mask. The magic created by their pulverized bones, that’s what made the clay.
A tear broke free from Kiona’s eye and left a wet streak down her face. She no longer thought it was worth it. How could she have forgotten?
Kiona recalled kissing her mother goodbye before promising to return. Instead, she came back to an empty hut.
Kiona felt sick. Her stomach lurched as she choked on the truth. His words from that fateful day many, many moons ago reappeared, written in the sky around her. As smooth as goat’s milk, as coaxing as the coyote’s call. “I can make you important, more important than those men that hunt all day,” he had promised, “I can make your beauty last forever. I can make your name whispered in awe.”
How was she to know what he would do?
The clay was gone, but the regret of her choice hardened on her face.
Tiny crystals danced along the top of the water. Kiona was so thirsty. Moving carefully, she positioned her body to hang over the edge of the canoe and dipped the leather bottle into the water. Cool droplets fell through her fingers as she lifted mouthfuls to her lips.
Kiona splashed the water against her cheeks, but it was no longer enough to erase what she’d learned, what she’d done.
The ripples slowly dissipated back to a smooth glass-like top on the water. Kiona’s heart sunk. This was not what she wanted. But it was, wasn’t it?
Kiona blinked away tears as she paddled home.
The canoe bumped to the rocky beach of her home. Kiona dragged the boat onto shore along with her broken soul. How could she approach Raffi now? Knowing the truth was a burden. She wished she’d burned the book.
Kiona stepped to the entrance of her grass hut, home at last. The smoke slipping through the opening in the roof told her Raffi was awake. She had expected as much. Raffi would be waiting. She only hoped he wasn’t furious with Kiona for disobeying his order.
Her hand moved to the door hatch but hesitated.
There was only silence behind the door. A weight burdened Kiona. She looked down to see the book had somehow found its way into the folds of her dress. She pulled it out and opened it to the first page.
You are with the infant now.
Kiona’s heart skipped a beat. She had a baby in her belly!
But then her fingers trembled as she turned the page.
Your beauty is not the skin protected by your clay mask.
It may be dampened by your greed, hidden beneath layers of your vanity.
But it is still there.
Your true beauty is the love you have for your husband.
I accept your trade. I take your true beauty.
As if opened by the hand of Moldan himself, her hut door swung open. The clay mask snapped back to place on Kiona’s face. The trick of magic returned double fold. Tighter than before. Her lips opened to speak when her eyes met Raffi’s, but it only lasted a second.
His final breath solidified in the cool air before he collapsed to the ground.
A single cry broke the silence from the mouth of a widow.