|Posted by Christie V Powell on February 6, 2017 at 10:00 PM|
Keita Sage stood alone among a crowd. Like the other maple-skinned, dark-haired Sprites, she faced the wide wooden stage below. Two men wrestled atop it, arms and legs glistening under the autumn sun as they ducked and dodged. The moves were unfamiliar to her, and her thoughts wandered: to other festivals lost to time, to her friends who must have discovered her absence, to wondering why she felt so out of place among people who looked so much like she did.
The crowd's cheering made her whip around. One of the men had fallen. The other jumped on top of him and wrapped his well-muscled arm around the other's neck. Keita flinched. Before she knew what she was doing, she was pressing through the crowd. The man underneath was squirming, frantic at first but with less and less life, and still the crowd watched and cheered. Keita was a few feet away when the man fell limp against the wood, the sound of his fall hidden in a roar from the crowd. A green cast spread up his skin, and Keita stopped.
Of course. He had gone dormant. He would wake up in less than an hour, embarrassed but unharmed. Keita had been living away from home too long. If the man had not been a Sprite, born into one of the other five clans, he would be dead.
The crowd dispersed and Keita caught only one more glimpse of the hurt man, his skin now bright green, being dragged from the stage. The other Sprites, wearing the pale, yellowish green of the grasslander tribe, strode away in twos and threes, weaving among the huge cottonwoods that lined the bottom of a wide, gentle valley. Keita had seen only the tops of those trees from the prairies, until she came to the edge of the hollow and found the celebrating group. Piping music drifted from the clearing where couples danced, their bare feet thumping the hard earth in enticing patterns. In their speech and movement and in more undefinable ways, the Sprite band showed their allegiance to each other. From babies and childlings, children, adlings like Keita, to full adults, they formed a tight-knit community that she was too obviously not a part of. They couldn't reject her on Equinumn, the autumn equinox, but her strangeness fit her like a garment she could not remove.
This was not what she had expected when she had left the others. They were her friends, but the group was too large, too noisy, too busy to make friends with Keita's home. They weren't interested in celebrating Equinumn, and even her twin brother had ignored her attempts to organize an event or two among their own group. Finding a local village had been her only option.
"Had anything to eat yet?"
Keita jumped. A round, friendly-faced man stood beneath the closest cottonwoods, holding out a turtle-shell bowl of thick brown stew. A refusal was halfway out Keita's mouth when she remembered to bite it back. Not today.
"Thank you," she said. Her hands shook as she took the bowl.
"Name's Bract. I do the cooking for the childlings... and everything else, for my three." He pointed to a trio of youngsters in the branches of the nearest tree. Bract waited, perhaps for Keita to introduce herself, but she said nothing. At last he asked, "This your first meal in a season?"
"Thereabouts," Keita said without looking up. Her last meal had been just like this. The day was cold but crystal clear, and the stew sat warm in her stomach. Trees towered over their valley home, unscathed by the future fire that would roar through weeks later. Her father, strong, busy, alive, threaded through the crowds, while dancers proved that though winter came and Earth slept, life would come again. Now the whole valley slept, and Keita had been gone from it three seasons. Nine months. No food.
The man was still watching. Keita attempted to smile as she scooped a square of root vegetable into her mouth.
Warmth. Crunch. Salt. Savory flavor of summer richness, of festivals gone by, of happy days that would never come back. The bowl slipped from her fingers and thudded to the ground.
Warm gravy spattered her toes. The children gasped, and Bract's eyes widened. Waste of food was sin. Keita ducked to rescue what she could, lost her balance, and found herself on hands and knees in leaf litter. Her head spun, and her stomach contracted with pain. She heaved, heaved again, Someone's hands had her shoulders, raised her to a sitting position, let her back rest on rough bark. She took a deep breath, and as the pain ebbed a fraction, looked up into Bract's face.
"We eat at each festival for a reason, adling," he said. "We can't hold off eating more than a season or so."
Had she known that? Eating a meal was an important part of the season transitions. It showed that they could not escape their connection to the world, that even Earth's people depended on the web that connected all life. Apparently the meal was more than symbolic. She ought to have known, but she ought to have known a lot of things. Knowledge was scarce when your childhood tutor worked for the enemy.