When Raine cut the heads off the Wood Nymphs, Paylee knew their mother had returned from the village with a heaping basket reeking of pungent dried herbs and weeds. He could imagine her expression, one of discouragement with a warming temper beneath, and wondered what she offered the people this time. Wartberry? Fairybell? Yellow Skullcap? She could offer them the Fountain of Youth, and they still wouldn’t forgive her, wouldn’t ever trust in her medicine again. Once a death, always another.
“Raine, cut it out!” Paylee yelled. It wasn’t only his liking for the Wood Nymphs, the way their sleepy baby-skin petals peered over his face at dawn, but Raine’s blind insistence to think things would ever change, as if the village would one day take them in again. Raine lived in a world constructed of his own wants and needs, and so Paylee suspected another reason for why he ushered mother to the village week after week.
* * *
Paylee picked up the Wood Nymph’s flowered faces and walked through the woods to the stone garden where trees circled a smooth bend in the river. Here, the woods whispered and echoed off granite and bark. Mother said it was the ancient ones sharing wisdom and foresight, thinly disguised in the ruffle of branches, the trickling of the river, and the moan of trunks swaying in the soft loam of the riverbed. She said one day, Paylee would hear them too. He’s tried, has held a rock wheel like the one she uses to commune with, but so far, his ears remain deaf to their tongue.
Paylee dropped the Nymph’s heads in at the river’s edge. Glassy, cloud-reflected water swirled them downstream like spinning snowflakes. He wanted to spin along with them, travel to his own world far from the woods, maybe to a desert or rolling grassy plains. Any place but the cold, wet woods they lived in now.
Raine had followed him. He held a fistful of smoothed, flat rocks. One of them zipped from his hand across the stone garden and into the river, two, three, five skips that chased after the Wood Nymph’s heads.
“What are you doing, Raine?”
Paylee hadn’t meant it as a question. He already knew why Raine had come, to show off and taunt him. His 7-year-old hands lacked Raine’s 17-year-old strength and dexterity, and his brother reminded him of it often.
Raine skipped another rock, this one bouncing six times before cracking against a rock on the other side of the river, dead center in a yellow circle Raine had painted with pollen last week. He grinned at Paylee, a smile too much like those of the guards at the village gate, Paylee thought to himself.
“Why do you keep sending mother to the village?” Paylee tossed a small stone at the river, but it only plunked with a one-drop splash six feet out. “You know they’ll never take us back.”
Raine picked up a large flat stone, one that fit comfortably in his palm. “To try is not to fail, Paylee. To stop trying is to fail. I do not force mother to go. The choice is hers and hers alone.” His muscles flexed across his back and arms as he skipped the rock upriver, into the current. It bounced in four giant rippled rings the size of a tall fir. He swayed around to face Paylee. “A choice that you are soon going to have to make too, little brother.”
Raine had never called him little brother. It occurred to Paylee then that he was making a point, not to state the obvious, but ever so slightly to challenge him. A glimmer sparked in Raine’s eye, a flame ready to leap higher.
* * *
The next morning, mother went out to talk to the trees. She told Paylee the ancient ones said change was on the horizon. Paylee didn’t need divine insight to gather that, but she also said a storm was coming, and with it, there would be irreversible outcomes.
Paylee didn’t want to think about the future; it was only filled with uncertainty, and his past was more or less a vague memory of moving from mountain side to cave and mountain side again.
Today, though, in the stone garden, a nice cool breeze blew in from the North. Paylee sat silent and focused like the peregrine. He cleared his mind to the present, deepened his breath in the now. In his hand, he held onto his own wheel of rocks, twine that was twisted and pulled taught around small rocks in a web design between two small sticks. When the wind blew, the rocks were supposed to vibrate slightly, a sign of the ancients ready to commune. Paylee’s didn’t work so well. The rocks kept slipping loose of the twine or they sagged against it. Maybe that was the reason he hadn’t heard their whispers, he thought. Either that, or mother was wrong, and he wasn’t seer.
In the distance, across the river, Paylee overheard voices, then caught the most surprising sight—Raine with a girl dressed in village clothes, tapered, bright linens that formed to her figure. He had picked her a small bouquet of flowers and was tucking them into her hair.
Paylee thought she looked like a princess, a lithe frame that moved as graceful as the Nymphs. He saw excitement glistening in Raine’s eyes, a different kind than the one he’d laid on him yesterday. This kind shined and twinkled like summer’s stars.
A sweep of anxiety flushed breath from Paylee’s lungs as suspicion filtered into his thoughts. Raine planned to make his passage back into the village through the likes of a girl. Paylee peered at them closer and realized for the first time that Raine was almost a man. The village would take him in, no matter that he was the child of a witch and seer. He was handsome, muscular, and knew the land better than anyone. Unlike Paylee and their mother, the village needed him.
But so did they.
Tears breached Paylee’s brutish fight to swallow them back, and he ran from the stone garden all the way back home.
* * *
Raine was a traitor, Paylee decided. He’d be willing to bet his flint stone that the ancient ones thought so too. Without Raine, survival would be no less than a harrowing, strenuous ordeal for his mother and him. Raine had protected them, hunted food, built and fixed their shelters, and near everything else since their exile from the village. Paylee was learning the ways, but not with a blue streak, and neither was his maturation.
Moreover, mother’s frailty worsened each day. Something black grew inside her, sucked the color from her cheeks and the food from her belly. She couldn’t do much beyond cooking and mixing medicinal treatments. Paylee knew Raine had given them everything, but they were family. It was what family did. Maybe, in the end, it had been too much for Raine.
Paylee brooded. If he hadn’t met that stupid girl. Her buttercup hair and fern-green eyes couldn’t fathom the consequences pressing down on them. She was selfish like the other villagers. They cared nothing about the ancient ones, cared nothing for a mother and her young children. For Raine to return to them after what they did drove a crowd of voices into Paylee’s head, none of which he suspected had come from the whispering woods.
Paylee watched them from afar again and grew angrier still. He threw a rock at the river—hoping to skip it ashore somewhere in their vicinity—and ducked behind a large boulder. It didn’t make it across the river, but it did skip three times and sent a spray of water their direction. At that small spark of satisfaction, he headed for home, through the forest, fighting back another bout of hot emotions that had expanded from somewhere deep and up into his throat.
Halfway there, he stopped to meditate, desperate to hear the ancient ones, but still, they refused him tongue. Before entering the cabin to mother cooking shoots and beans over the stove, he bit down on his own. She did not need to know about the village girl, though Paylee suspected the ancients had told her already.
Paylee set the rug with two bowls and two spoons only. Mother sat down across from him and ladled broth into his bowl. At his silence, she spoke.
“You still haven’t heard the ancient ones.”
“Raine is spending time at the village. He’s met a girl.” It blurted from Paylee like scorching red magma spit out from its chamber, molten and viscous.
Mother suspended her scooping of stew as though momentarily frozen. “Raine has his own choices to make.” She resumed serving.
“But he will leave us. What will we do?”
“Do not cross bridges you have not yet arrived at, Paylee.” She placed the pot on the kiln and sat back down on the floor.
“He’s not a chosen one, is he?” Paylee asked.
“For other things. In a sense, we are all chosen for something. It’s a matter of owning our destiny, traversing our fate. You’ll understand in time, my son.” Curls of steam wafted up from her spoon. “Now, no more talk. Tend to your eating so that you may be thankful.”
* * *
The next morning, Paylee woke to the cold breath of dawn on his shoulders. He stoked the fire, covered his mother’s shoulders with a blanket, and went outside. He headed to the stone garden, and after ten handfuls of rocks, he could skip them four times consecutively. The last one hit the painted boulder across the river, a thumb’s length from the bull’s-eye before it split into two halves.
* * *
At the peak of a waxing moon, the sky rolled with its own skipping stones and the smell of charred wood soaked the air. Mother stirred with a fever that herb and weed couldn’t lessen. She tossed and turned on her mat with dampness on her brow and heat at her cheeks. Her eyes fogged over with a cloudy fluid much like plant milk. It crusted along her eyelashes.
She grabbed Paylee’s arm as though falling. “Paylee!” she said. “Go to the stone garden. Go listen to the whispering woods. The ancient ones are calling for you. You must hurry!”
“I will not leave you, not like this. Not like Raine has.”
“Paylee, my son. It is I who will eventually leave you. Go, you must hear the ancient ones.” With trembling fingers, she pushed her rock wheel into his hand.
Paylee kissed her on the forehead and ran to the stone garden. A bulbous moon blinked between the swift glide of pewter-glazed clouds. Raine and his princess were long gone, probably walking the cobbled streets of the village and eating warm, spiced meat from bone, unaware of his mother’s growing illness.
The sacred circle of whispering woods towered around Paylee like a dark counsel of revenants. He sat on his favorite boulder with his mother’s wheel in his hand, focusing, listening, keen to hear the ancient ones speak to him, to tell him what to do. Only the delicate whistle of the wind answered him. He felt small, like he did in his dreams. A little brother. Feeble. Inadequate. Naïve. Raine knew it, and the ancient ones did too.
Paylee scooped up a handful of rocks and chucked one, two, three, hard as he could. They skidded, plunked, and splashed into the black glass of the river.
“What do you want of me!” Paylee yelled. Warm tears spilled down his cheeks. He wiped at them in outrage.
The tree branches shook and scraped their limbs together. He stared down at the wheel of rocks, beheld the tight oscillations, but it wasn’t enough, and so he raised it high into the air and aimed it in the direction of the river. He would throw it in if the ancient ones didn’t speak to him. He would toss it so hard, maybe his hand wouldn’t let go. Maybe he would drown instead or let the river take him to a place far, far away.
Before further thought, before his arm flexed back gaining strength for his hardest throw, a murmuring breeze whirled in and gripped him by the throat. What started as a whisper grew to a growling bellow.
Paylee, stop! Do not fear.
More than one voice spoke to him, and one of them achingly familiar. “Mother?”
Paylee looked up and around but saw only clouds and the tarnished glow of the moon behind them. As much as he tried to force the thought from his mind because of what it meant, he couldn’t. He knew what hearing his mother speak to him in such a manner meant, what had happened to her after he left. She was with the ancient ones now. Mother was dead.
You have been chosen, Paylee, she and the other voices said. And now you must choose. Follow the path of your spirit.
“I don’t know how. I’m afraid. I don’t want to choose.”
You will have no choice. Trust in your heart.
The whispers stopped. Paylee wanted to go back home, tend to his mother’s passing. He stepped from the stone garden and into the needle-thick canopy of the woods. An invisible, silent power steered him deeper into another section of the forest, one he hadn’t been to since he could remember, the path that led to the village.
A slice of bone-white moonlight cut through the trees and landed on a slumped form in the dirt. Paylee ran over to the person and nudged the shoulder back. His mother’s face fell to the side, her eyes pinned to the night above, frozen wide in the grip of death.
Paylee jerked his hand back with a choking gasp. A warm, sap-like substance coated his fingers. A cry shot from his throat. A puddle of blood seeped across his mother’s chest, a red darker than he thought possible.
“Mother! Who did this to you?” There was no answer.
Paylee picked up a large stone. He was going to skip it all the way to heaven. “Why!” he cried, shouting at the sky. “Why didn’t you warn me!”
Why would I do that?
But it wasn’t mother and the ancient ones. A crumble of rotted wood jolted Paylee to his feet. Raine appeared from around a trunk as stealth as any night panther. His eyes shone like crimson stars, and Paylee realized then it was the reflection of blood over his palms.
“I’m sorry, Paylee. Choices were made. Mother killed Lilah.”
Paylee slipped the stone into his pocket and searched the ground for the wheel of rocks. If there was ever a time he needed the council of the ancient ones, it was now. “How could she?” he replied. “Mother was sick.”
“It’s true. Mother gave me an herb to give Lilah that would take the child from her belly, but it took her too. She knew it would.”
“No! Mother knows the plants better than anyone. She wouldn’t do that. She respected your choices.”
“Did she?” Raine edged closer to him, the flame in his eyes had plumed into a blaze.
“Why would she do that?”
“You know why. She was threatened by her and the villagers, scared I was going to leave you both for them.”
“You mean, aren’t I?”
Something wasn’t right. It stirred deep in Paylee’s gut, even before he heard the ancient ones speak again, He hides truth.
Mother hadn’t killed the village girl. A tremor quaked inside Paylee and bled everything in his world red. Breath knotted in the back of his throat and pulled tight against his cords. “You killed her,” he rasped. “I know you did! You killed her!”
That snide grin spread into Raine’s eyes. “Little Paylee, so wise, so mature. You think I’m going to live in these woods forever? Taking care of you and mother while my life slips away? Mother made the wrong choices, and we paid for them!”
“She was set up.”
Raine clucked his tongue. “It doesn’t matter anymore. My destiny is behind those walls, and the only way to get inside them is to bring the villagers what they want.”
“Please, Raine. Don’t do this.”
Raine fell silent and stepped towards him. Paylee dipped his hand into his pocket and curled his fingers tight around the stone. Fear squeezed around his hammering heart.
“The woods have spoken to me,” Paylee said. “They’ve shown me my destiny too.”
Raine lingered in his advance on him. “So, you’ve made your choice, little brother?”
The rock in Paylee’s hand was as smooth as the best of them, and tonight, it wouldn’t skip across the river. The bulls-eye stood before him.
* * *
A rose dawn spread its light over the stone garden and bathed the sacred circle of whispering trees with the same pink as the belly of the fish that squirmed in Paylee’s hand. With ease, he drew the tip of the blade beneath its gills and slit down the middle. He laid it skin-side down on a hot rock by the fire and seasoned the flesh with dried verbena.
On the horizon, Paylee knew another storm would gather, one shaped of dark horses and pointed spears. The villagers would find what they were looking for, so hoped Paylee. He owned his destiny now, and it took him down river, to a place far away.