The fish took the bait. At first, it warily circled the scrap of meat waving from around the hook, but hunger soon overpowered reason. Taitu floated above, her spread-eagle form riding the gentle current. And the line in her hand tugged, her prey wrapping its mouth around the morsel and the spike within. She almost felt sorry for the thrashing creature as she reeled it in, but survival did not always equal fairness or compassion – one of the first lessons Taitu learned from Arjanna.
Tightly gripping the fish, Taitu swam to the surface, where the early morning sky shimmered through, white and teal. As she emerged, gasping for air and squinting through the saltwater streaming over her eyelashes, she held up her prize with both hands.
‘Another to me!’ she shouted, her grin triumphant.
The three youths on the shore looked up from their nets and scowled. One girl stuck her tongue out, while her sister called back. ‘Why boast? Thou cheatn.’
‘Aye,’ the third, a black-haired boy, added. ‘Let’s see how well thou do without magic.’
Tharo inspected his spear, while eyeing Taitu kicking her way towards them.
‘I could beat thee before I started using magic for jobs,’ she taunted and found her footing on the shallow rocks. ‘Besides, I only use a little.’
She rose from the water, carefully wading over pebbles and sharp rocks. Her gills receded from her neck, leaving smooth skin behind. She dropped the fish into a water-filled bucket already inhabited by four others, and stood, fists on hips, breathing in the fresh ocean breeze. It ruffled her three thick braids, the curls on their ends tickling the middle of her back. Goosepimples broke on her arms. The sun was not up long enough to warm the crisp air. The skins she wore scarcely protected her torso and upper thighs. She shivered and hopped a little, dropping the fishing line onto her gear.
‘Summer’s leaving us,’ she mused and squatted between the brunette girls untangling their net.
‘The fish donna mind.’ Phara, the one who had rebuffed Taitu first, glanced happily at the bucket she and her little sister shared. Three fish swam within, one for each of them and one for their mother. ‘The sea’s still kind to us.’
Was it admiration or pity Taitu felt? A bit of both.
‘I doubt those clouds mean well.’ Tharo directed their attention to a grey mass coming from the north. ‘Unless the wind changes, they shall be here by midday.’
‘Aye. We should get back an’ finish our chores,’ Phara declared and started rolling up the net. ‘Nina, pack our things.’
Her sister sprang into action, no complaint, no hesitation. It was impressive how fast Phara could transform from sweet and simple to domineering shepherd. Most first children on Ilja became this way, substitute or additional parents for their siblings, a result of the bad condition their mothers usually arrived in.
Taitu once again thanked her luck for being an only child. And that she was but an infant on her mother’s back when the islanders took them in. And that her mother was gone soon after. It was almost a blessing having barely any memories of her or what tragedy they had come from. Almost.
Taitu’s face hardened as she tied on her sandals and pulled a loose linen dress of a faded copper colour over her swim skins. She scrambled up the overgrown path after her friends, their equipment under arms or strapped to backs. Taitu’s fishing line and hooks were snug in a pouch tied to her waist under the dress.
At the top of the steep bank, they looked to the town of Ilja, where the banging of a blacksmith had joined the clamour coming from the fenced-in practice fields across the path. Three young huntresses stood in rows shooting arrows at targets made of wood and straw. Nearby, spears and swords sparred, wielded by two girls and two boys. The youngest student was ten and two – that was the age Thorns began combat training. Wiry elders circled, observing, instructing, scolding. The earth was scraped bare of grass by generations of scuffling feet. Some students sweated and snarled as they strove to prove their skills. Others, however, lagged and whined, eager to be elsewhere.
The most unusual sight this day was three children huddled over something at the western edge of the fields, just outside the wooden fence. Taitu strode over with Tharo close behind. Phara and Nina indulged their curiosity, but the oldest sister grumbled all the way there that they would be late for chores. Her gasp cut her words short, however.
‘What made those?’ she whispered, making Nina cling to her.
‘We don’ have wolves here. Or wild cats,’ Tharo remarked and looked to Taitu for an answer. ‘What could it be?’
‘Looks like a big cat’s paws to me,’ she replied, pushing through the other children and squatting down to fit her whole hand in the imprint of the animal’s middle pad. The grassy earth was disturbed between the four prints, as if the animal had lain on its belly for a time. ‘But how would it get here?’
‘Swam from the mainland?’ someone suggested.
That did not make much sense to Taitu, unless something larger was hunting it.
‘Or jumped off a passing ship,’ another child added. ‘Mama says men like to take animals from other places an’ sell them. They use ships to carry them sometimes.’
That was more plausible, but Taitu’s excitement was less about how the creature arrived than it being there at all. Something new and thrilling on the Ca’roon Isles.
‘What are you all looking at?’ A male voice turned everyone’s heads.
Aoza, apprentice battle instructor, stood over them, a curious crinkle to his brow over a firmly set jaw. As soon as he spotted the paw print, his face slackened, but Taitu was not sure if it was in surprise or recognition. He quickly regained his composure.
‘Back to work, everyone,’ he commanded and ushered them away, ignoring their protests.
Taitu would not budge, however. Phara had already taken a few steps with Nina firmly in hand, when she fixed Taitu with wide angry eyes and a disapproving pout. Tharo’s presence right behind Taitu frustrated Phara even more. Aoza’s sigh and sidelong frown did not dissuade Taitu either.
‘Thou know something,’ she stated matter-of-factly, fully aware that Aoza had a soft spot for her and would only need a bit of prodding to open up.
‘Better run before Brekkel spots thee,’ he retorted, while brushing the paw print with his foot, erasing it from view but not from Taitu’s mind.
‘What animal is it?’
‘Tai.’ His clipped tone warned her away from the issue.
‘How did it get here?’
Aoza sniffed and glanced at her bucket. ‘Good catch?’
He was trying to distract her.
‘Thou know it. Don’t change the –’
‘Still cheatn?’ he smirked, warm almond-shaped eyes twinkling.
Taitu opened her mouth to protest when Phara promptly interjected, ‘That what I keep tellin’ her.’
Taitu rolled her eyes and exclaimed, ‘Not the most important matter here. What are thou hiding?’
She was tempted to shake Aoza by the shirt, but it was so grimy, she reconsidered, giving him a level glare instead. He only crossed his arms and returned a calm gaze. The awkward silence grew until a timid Tharo interjected.
‘When thou leave, brother?’
Aoza straightened a little and gave the boy a half-smile. ‘In four or five days. Two sisters are leaving as well, so lots of farewells an’ preparations. The ship faced rough seas on the way in, too, and needs repairs. The new arrivals sure seemed grateful for solid ground. One may be a dwarf,’ he said excitedly.
A collective gasp drowned out Taitu’s. First a mysterious beast and now a dwarf. She had to find out more, but Aoza clenched his jaw tighter than ever when he noticed her feet and shoulders twitching and her eyes ablaze. After cycles of training as hunters and foragers together, Aoza could spot the signs that often got Taitu in trouble.
He curtly added, ‘Once the ship is ready, it shall take us to the mainland. Hallad, I believe.’
‘Where to after?’ Phara inquired.
Nina, who stood behind her sister’s hip, tried and failed to look upon Aoza’s handsome face without turning slack-jawed and puppy-eyed while hanging off his every word. Considering the little girl was not the only young Thorn pining over Aoza, his leaving was perhaps wise.
‘Wherever my sword is of most use,’ he shrugged. ‘I shall travel a time, see the world beyond Ca’roon. Visit Therea, for certain, bu’ beyond that, I donna know. I’m ready to go is all. This is what Ilja prepares us for.’
Aoza paused, nodding to himself. His voice became softer, nostalgic. ‘As eager as I am to escape this place, I shall miss it.’
Taitu chortled. ‘I bet my arm the first thing thou’ll do is join the filthiest, manliest army around an’ spend the rest of thy life avoiding women.’
Aoza and Tharo laughed as one, looking rather fond of that idea.
Phara tutted at them, just like their mothers and teachers would when they were naughty. ‘Our purpose as children of Ilja is to carry the pride an’ legacy of our home. To avoid our duty is to condemn the world to continued ignorance of the plight of women an’ misguided men.’ Everyone, including Nina, squirmed as Phara lectured with her eyes closed. ‘We’re free to perform our duty in any way we wish, whether out there or on the islands.’
‘Thou must admit, boys are encouraged to do their duty “out there” more than girls are,’ Taitu pointed out, causing Phara’s eyes to open and shift as she thought about it.
‘Well, perhaps. Bu’ the elders know much. If they believe boys are better off away from the island, they must have their reasons.’ Her brow knotted tighter and tighter, her careful words emerging like bricks lined up one by one to build her wall. ‘They love all their children, male or female. They deal with each of us in a way they believe is best.’
Taitu tilted her head, her eyes narrowing wickedly. ‘Or they’re crusty old hags with a grudge against men.’
Nina retreated to a safe distance from her sister as Phara swelled with rage. The boys, amused and fearful, shied away a little, too. Aoza was three cycles older than Phara, almost a full man, but he knew not to question Thorn politics within earshot of her.
‘Thou bitter–’ Phara yapped, stopping short of throwing her bucket of fish at Taitu. ‘Why say that? Women come broken an’ desperate an’, aye, angry at men an’ the world. Thy mother was one of them. My mother is… Why would thou… What’s wrong with thee?’
Taitu jutted her chin out, despite the pang of guilt she felt towards Phara’s eyes turning wet and pink. Phara noticed the attention they were drawing from the training field and lowered her voice to a growl.
‘Thou not even male. What thou care?’
‘I know what it is to be discarded because of somethin’ thou were born with. As soon as my magic came, the hags couldna feed me to the witch fast enough.’
Phara scowled. ‘Arjanna blessed thee with a roof an’ food an’ better learning than any of us.’
‘Strange. Before they gave me to her, they said she cursed infants an’ danced with demons. I was barely a child myself.’
The other girl fumbled, her mouth working, eyes searching the skies for a convincing response. She flagged and peered sheepishly at Taitu, who was not done.
‘Thy precious elders are far from perfect. They make mistakes an’ show prejudice like anyone else. Stop hanging off their every word. Thy mind is thy own.’
She rounded on Aoza next, who flinched at the sudden attention. ‘What made that paw print?’
He huffed. ‘I’m not to speak of it, Tai. The huntresses shall deal with it without causing needless panic.’
‘What if I bump into it on my way home? Seems to me, this thing doesna fear people. It sneaks up to them, in fact. Preferably children.’
Aoza blinked, his eyes hardening. ‘Tai, thou’re old and skilled enough to avoid that. An’ thou have magic to protect thee.’
Taitu rolled her eyes, nostrils flaring, annoyed at hearing that timeless excuse. ‘Oh, I see. Protect all but the mages, as if we walk around in permanent magic bubbles. Spells can fail, Aoza, when, say, a terrifying animal takes thee by surprise an’ tries to maul thee. Mages can bleed – and die – like anyone else, especially if they donna practise their spells because, I donna know, their friends call them cheats.’
She did not expect her resentment to gush out like this. It yanked her accusing gaze towards everyone but Nina, and Taitu got some satisfaction from the red faces and averted guilt-ridden eyes.
Taitu continued in a rushed grumble: ‘I use my magic in everyday tasks to make it second nature. To ensure it comes the instant I summon it, no matter the purpose. Since I canna expect aid from other people, I can only rely on my own powers to survive.’
Taitu’s voice wavered more than she could bear, so she grunted and stormed off back towards the main path, shoving Phara’s shoulder on the way. Both their buckets sloshed over their legs, and Phara gasped but said nothing. Taitu did not care to apologise or look back at their faces. Even if they did feel bad, she doubted anything would change. Her ‘friends’ had always treated her as an oddity they could not quite get comfortable with, and they would not stop now.
Two more cycles. She had to wait until she was ten and eight to leave Ca’roon with the Thorns’ blessing. Then, she would make straight for Mecanta’s Academy of the Arcane Arts. Nobody would be surprised if she bolted sooner, however.
Walking between the eastern side of the training grounds and the smithy, Taitu immersed herself in her favourite topic: what she wanted the academy to teach her first. Arjanna covered elemental and force manipulation well enough, as well as a few transmutation spells, like those handy gills, but Taitu would have much preferred to learn about teleportation, a lesson that Arjanna avoided, perhaps because she knew Taitu would have already used it to escape Ca’roon.
Taitu marched further down the street, now flanked by workshops. She dawdled at the mats, blankets, and tapestries on display across the weaver’s exterior wall. Graith sat on the doorstep peeling the bark off sticks of different sizes. What she planned to do with them Taitu could not wait to see. Taitu marvelled at the birds, flowers, ships, or suns decorating household items, but the intricate work of the tapestries hooked her once again. They always depicted Thorn themes or stories.
This day, Taitu recognised the loose ilja-shaped layout of the Ca’roon Isles formed out of yellow silk and rimmed with gold thread, all sewn onto a background of grey-blue velvet and with the Thorns’ four most precious animals inhabiting each corner of the tapestry: goat, blue gull, crab, and horga, the last baring fearsome teeth and coiling its long, spiked tail around itself. Taitu took it all in with a loose smile, but she gasped when she glimpsed another tapestry further down the wall, one honouring the mages of Ca’roon.
If there was one thing that history recognised their little community for, besides its aggressive women, it was the powerful mages it produced. Arjanna suspected that it was because of the anger and pain most of Ca’roon’s inhabitants brought with them, that collective pent-up passion of surviving bad situations breeding sharp arcane focus, especially in children. Another sad fact Arjanna shared with Taitu was that no Thorn child was ever conceived on the islands. It was typical for mothers to arrive already pregnant or lugging offspring. But, on occasion, they would get a brave, solitary girl seeking the legendary haven for women.
Taitu focused on the golden ilja on Graith’s tapestry. It was embroidered in the centre on a field of royal purple. The flower’s green stem, wrapped in red and orange threads to signify magic, perhaps, spiralled outwards and jutted sixteen thorns further than the rest, each pointing at a golden name.
Taitu was taken aback to find herself among them: Taitu Jathaeri. It was stranger still to see her last name written down – it was not even real, just Thaelil for ‘storm-born’ because of the violent sea that had spat her and her mother onto Ilja’s shore. Taitu’s first name was fortunately among the woman’s few mutterings before she died a few weeks later. Otherwise, the Thorns would have called her something just as literal. Girl. Human. Loud. Kicker Stormborn.
‘We thought thou might like that one,’ a smooth deep voice glided over her from the workshop’s door.
Taitu found Reja leaning against the doorframe behind Graith. The pair looked majestic, Reja’s golden ringlets barely tamed into one thick braid that hung over one shoulder. Her short but stout and tanned body marked her as the busy crafter and lover of the outdoors that she was. The bronze bracelets around her biceps, wrists, and ankles glimmered in the sunlight as if in adoration of it.
Her wife’s adornments were her skin drawings, running in waves, edges, and curls from her shaved scalp to her toes – both big toes wore bronze rings, perhaps to echo Reja. The freckles across Graith’s face made her look eternally youthful, as did her kind green doe eyes.
Taitu could remember both women’s arrivals, years apart. Each had her own grim story, rage to quell, and wounds to heal, but after they met… Thorns often found comfort in each other, but with Graith and Reja it was like spiced wine and berry cheese, a sweet and enthralling pairing. They healed together and rewarded the whole of Ca’roon with their warmth and skills.
‘What inspired thee?’ Taitu asked, her eyes gravitating towards Graith as the usual maker of the tapestries.
The weaver’s knife kept gliding over the wood in her hands, baring its pale centre, as she made her husky response and occasional eye contact.
‘Reja an’ I talked magic one day. Neither of us are spellweavers, bu’ we been in its presence an’ were wondering what it is, how it must work. While contemplating the wonders of willpower an’ words shaping mystical energies, I couldna help bu’ admire those who could wield such a unique artform. I decided our own incredible Thorns deserved to be remembered. So rare – one or two in each generation – and powerful.’
Taitu wanted to huddle beside Graith and listen to her talk – about anything. She had such a profound serenity about her.
‘What a refreshing outlook,’ Taitu remarked. ‘Bu’ I don’ know if I qualify yet.’
‘Oh, thou’ll step up, Jathaeri,’ Reja replied with a wink.
Taitu’s eyes fell on the tapestry’s bottom right corner, where the embroidered fortress of Mecanta’s academy sat, red for its brick walls and shades of blue for its crystal windows and spirals. It was nowhere near as detailed as the drawings in Arjanna’s books, but it created a warm buzz in Taitu all the same. One day.
‘Still planning to part with us, are ya?’
Taitu quirked an eyebrow and a smile at Reja, who nodded.
‘Who could stop thee? Thou’re made for adventure. No doubt about that.’
‘Mecanta is a good place to start,’ Graith offered. ‘Lots of fun secrets, that city. Of human and elf alike. In fact, a thaelil temple lies beneath, near destroyed. But thou know all this, no?’
Taitu’s politeness downplayed the fact that she had read every scrap of lore Arjanna had on Mecanta. Out of curiosity, Taitu checked the names on the tapestry again, confirming that her guardian was not included.
Ilja’s strange witch had lived there for a long time, but she was still not seen as a Thorn. Taitu could only ever coax minor details about Arjanna’s story from the locals, amounting to her arriving at the island by boat over twenty cycles past, asking for a quiet spot to live, and offering her magic services in trade.
The approaching rain’s cool breath ruffled Taitu’s hair, tingled her bare arms and legs, and reminded her of the fish. She thanked the crafters before abandoning the art-covered wall for an alley bound east.
Soon, Taitu reached a vast complex of wood, stone, and tile, lines of houses stacked against and over a hill. Pathways of earth, grass, and pebble spidered through the neighbourhood, while a wider flagstone road snaked its way up to the topmost houses. Ilja’s abodes were as luxurious and spacious as their households wished, but it also depended on what the Ca’roon islands and its sea provided. Even its rain collectors, an essential source of clean water, were patchworks of any good metal and wood they could find or trade for.
Taitu could not remember much of her first home on Ilja, except the softness of her blanketed nest, a bland ceiling of wooden beams, and a pair of deep blue eyes above a broad smile. It was not her birth mother’s face. The only memory she had of her was haunting, not warming.
As soon as Taitu nudged the memory, it rushed through her head again. Cold water. Sobs. Darkness. And rough hands pulling them both onto sharp rocks. Taitu groaned as the familiar shiver came again, as if she were back in the water, encased in wet, smothering rags with her mother dying beneath her.
Taitu hurried to the blue eyes that saved her.