Ingram description: The Field Folk thought they and the savage Trailmen were the only people to inhabit their war-torn world. They were wrong. Folk girl Alysa risks all to unveil long-hidden truths, heal ancient hatreds, and save her people from peril.
From the darkness of outer space, a meteor whisked between the orbits of two moons circling Xunar-kun, a world that appeared largely brown and dead. Below the haze and scattered whorls of clouds in the atmosphere, short fingers of blue-white ice reached out from the polar caps, yielding to tall mountain peaks which appeared to hold them back. The world possessed scattered areas of blue water and forest, suggesting the possibility that it was able to bear life.
The meteor sped toward a battered space station. Spans of what were solar-collection grids were shot through with countless holes. The grids’ broken metallic skeletons sprawled at odd angles to one another, torn from their original attachments.
Behind large, still-intact windows in the space station floated the lifeless bodies of several men and women. Raw, golden sunlight glared on the stiff gray bodies, accentuating stark expressions of fro-zen panic. A spacejet had collided with the station. Its hull had exploded on impact, piercing the station’s outer shell. The mangled and charred tableau was a remnant of a battle lost long ago.
The speeding meteor struck the twisted space station and blew apart, propelling its fragments and pieces of the space wreckage in every direction. The meteor fragments showered upon the curve of the sky and sped downward, sparking into wild flames that con-sumed them.
By the time the debris reached mid-atmosphere, it turned to ash. Buffeted by high winds, the ash broke into smaller and smaller pieces until it became dust. Some of the dust was gradually drawn toward the planet’s surface.
Golden sunlight gave way to darkness and darkness again to sunlight as a dust mote slowly drifted over the brown plains. Be-tween breaks in clouds appeared fleeting views of ruined city structures, yellow-green bodies of water, and severely ravaged lands. Whirlwinds and dense storms raged here and there on the world, moving rapidly over the plains and abruptly dissipating as they slammed into mountainsides. Patches of green and blue tucked within vast mountain ranges drew closer.
A harsh current of wind caught the dust and whisked it into a mountain chain, whirling it down through dispersing clouds. It was rushed between harsh peaks and above verdant, misty valleys; through flocks of screeching birds and over rushing streams; and be-tween stands of tall trees.
Eventually the dust was freed by the high breezes. It floated down over gushing waterfalls, where it rose and fell above turbulent waves, then was released to calmer air above a sunny hillside meadow. The warm air, dotted with iridescent-winged insects, car-ried the dust downslope. Smaller updrafts threaded it through steep terraces of neat, tilled plants and, finally, toward a cottage of log and stone built into the side of a hill.
The dust drifted closer to the cottage’s rough plank door, which bore a carving of three mountain peaks with two moons rising above them. The dust slowed nearly to a halt as it approached the door and was drawn through a crack between planks.
Within the dark cottage, a wisp of incense wafted through the soft flame of a hanging lamp. The lamplight reflected off the grim, dark-golden faces of men standing in a circle. Their mournful chant-ing filled the room with sadness. The low, non-syllabic drone was punctuated now and then by higher tones joining in.
Their eyes focused on Father Gord’n—a frail, dark old man—who lay on a narrow cot in the center of the circle. His long white hair spilled over the side of the cot. Not far from death, his breath was shallow, irregular. The men gazed upon him with unmistakable rev-erence.
Alvan—a man whose face was nearly as dark and as deeply etched as Father Gord’n’s—stood in a corner. Alvan’s gray hair braid hung down to his waist. His dark eyes were heavy with sorrow and exhaustion. He leaned close to a man who stood opposite him and whispered, “My heart is heavy, Kahnton. I don’t know what to say to Father Gord’n. How do I comfort one who has been such a strong leader, the one who saved us from the cataclysm? We all remember how great he used to be…what tremendous feats through great courage and wisdom he accomplished. Yet, that man lying there…that is not Father Gord’n…”
Kahnton, a younger man whose braid was beginning to gray, whispered, “Alvan, I don’t know what you should say. I can’t give you any advice but…” Kahnton glanced at the dying man. “You’re wise and have known him the longest. You’ve been with him from the beginning! What do you think he would like to hear? What would he tell you if you were in his place? Tell him that.” Kahnton gently pushed Alvan toward the dying man and followed.
Alvan knelt beside Father Gord’n and adjusted the coarse-woven blanket covering his shivering torso, as if this comfort would keep the old man from slipping away. Alvan struggled to find words.
Father Gord’n raised his weak eyelids. His feeble hand searched the surface of the blanket and found Alvan’s. Father Gord’n at-tempted to speak. Alvan bent to hear his words. The chanting ceased. The men strained to hear Father Gord’n’s words.
“These are my final…instructions,” gasped Father Gord’n. “You, Alvan of Falling Stream…I appoint First Teller of the Laws.” Dutiful Alvan nodded. Father Gord’n, gulping air, gathered the strength to continue. “You must commit to memory…all I have spoken…all I have written.” His weak hand indicated the shelves of books against the walls of the cottage, vaguely visible in the dim light. “Teach those from the other homesteads…so generations to come…will know the ways…that are best…to follow.”
Alvan replied, “Father Gord’n, trust that your instructions will be carried out. Your Law will live forever! Know that, despite the Laws you have given us, we will be lost without you…” Alvan knelt beside the dying man and bowed his head. The others followed Alvan’s lead and resumed their melancholy chant.
Father Gord’n’s eyes looked at the lamp flame. His breathing ceased, but his eyes continued to stare, unfocused, at the flame.
Golden sunshine burned through white mist. A filigree of leaves and branches shattered the rays into bright streaks that cascaded down through the tall, ancient forest. High above the ground, an adolescent boy suddenly came swinging through the trees. His mo-tion cut a swath through the light and mist, and with little effort he glided from vine to vine. It seemed as though the greenery lent itself to his reach, even as he altered direction and height.
The youth—dressed in close-fitting hide tunic and breeches, boots that rose to his knees, and a hide helmet that fit snugly to his head—landed on a heavy branch and ran up to the tree’s huge trunk. Breathing hard, he peeked from behind the tree, watching in the di-rection from which he had come. Other boys and girls, dressed in kind, were in pursuit. They dipped and soared from tree to tree, yell-ing to each other as they glided through the air.
The boy stifled a laugh as the others passed his hiding place yell-ing phrases like, “Where did he go?” and “There he is!” It seemed as soon as they appeared they were gone again, on to another part of the forest.
As the hiding boy regained his breath, he heard the rush of a stream and another sound that he couldn’t quite place. He hopped to a lower branch and walked toward the sound. He lay prone, shin-nied to the end of the branch, parted the leaves, and peered out.
On the opposite shore of a rushing stream, crouched a small fig-ure framed by large boulders and tall, soft-branched foya trees. It was a slender girl. She hugged her chest to her knees.
The boy stared at the girl in bewilderment. He lost his balance and instantly wrapped his legs around the branch to regain it. He pulled the helmet from his sweaty, short mop of dark-streaked hair. Colorful tattoos covered the tops of his ears and trailed down the back and sides of his neck. Pale-blue eyes stared from his smudged, light-golden face. He squinted at the girl.
Clear, sparkling water splashed and roiled in deep pools as it cas-caded down steps of flat rock, melting into the boulder-strewn stream on its course through the forest. Pink briarwood petals, caught up by the stream as they floated from the high archway of overhanging branches, bobbed like tiny rafts on the water as they, too, began their journey downstream.
The girl—Alysa—lifted her small oval face. It was wet and dirt-streaked, and her large, brown eyes brimmed with tears. Her soft, rounded chin quivered as she wiped her face with a sleeve. If her face was clean, it too would have been golden like the boy’s. The skin of all younglings this age was colored thus. In Alysa’s grain-hued hair, held in a single, untidy long braid, pieces of leaves and moss were tangled in unruly strands. Her blue, coarse-woven smock was also quite dirty.
She wiped her eyes again and rested her chin on her knees. Her angry eyes took no notice of the playful, purple water bugs skittering in the shallows near the edge of the stream, nor of shy, golden shim-merfish peeking out from fringes of swaying waterweed.
Seda, a plump, red-haired girl, climbed up a steep path behind Alysa. Seda’s blue eyes peered warily into the undergrowth. With one hand she held up her heavy, yellow skirt so the hem rested across her shins, thus easing her steps. With the other hand she held her dark shawl tight about herself. The distant sound of a joyful flute and playful drum drifted up the path behind her. “Ho, Alysa…Ah-LIH-sah!” She spotted her crying friend. “There you are! Don’t you hear it? They’ve started the music. You don’t want to miss all the fun, do you?”
Out of breath, Seda flopped down. Alysa turned her head away to hide her flushed cheeks and tearful eyes. Seda said, “I’ve been tromping all over High Point looking for you. I should’ve known to look here first!” She picked pieces of leaves from Alysa’s hair and looked her over. Seda shook her head. “Look at you. What a mess!”
Seda looked around, nervous, suspicious of the surroundings. She glanced up at the trees and into the water. Not far from her foot, a large, blue-green rockhopper popped onto the shore. Its large, pro-truding orange eyes circled in opposite directions as it surveyed the ground. In one continuous motion, the scaly creature thrust out two sharp-clawed fingers, hooked a large, orange beetle wobbling close to her foot, stuffed it into its wide mouth, and plopped back into the water. Seda caught sight of the capture, shivered and recoiled. She hurried to her feet, brushed herself off, and pulled the back of her skirt around to examine it for possible vermin. She shook and re-leased the skirt and stomped her foot. “You and your stream, Alysa! You know how I hate it up here, in this odd hiding place of yours…so far from the homestead. I’ll never figure you out!” Seda sighed. “Have you even been home to see your new little sister yet? No. Do you even know what name has been given to her? No.”
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Alysa said through her tears. “Nobody cares about me, Seda. All they care about is that newborn...”
“So that’s what this is about. Your new sister. That is not true, Alysa. You know how much you’re loved. Why do you let the birth of one little youngling upset you so?” Seda sighed, exasperated. “You are so spoiled!”
Alysa turned her streaked face to Seda and glared at her.
Looking at her pointedly, Seda scolded, counting on her fingers, “Do you have a mother, father, brother, cousin, grandfather and two aunts to share everything with like I do, all in one little cottage? You’ve had your parents and your bed to yourself for ten whole cy-cles. So now you have to share. Poor thing! Come on now.”
Again, Alysa wiped her face, further smudging a streak of dirt. Stubborn, she turned away.
“We’re all…worried, Alysa. What would Father Gord’n think?”
“Father Gord’n’s been dead for almost three thousand cycles. What does he care?”
“What? You mustn’t talk about the Ancient Founder like that!” Seda scolded, looking around with shame as if an Elder overheard. “That’s not proper! That’s so disrespectful to Father Gord’n! What...what makes you say such terrible things?”
Disgusted, Seda said, “You think too much. Sometimes it seems that you like to be sad!” She sighed. “Well, I’ll tell them I found you. You can do what you like.” She turned and hurried down the path.
Alysa called after her. “All right! I’m coming. But don’t tell any-one where you found me!”
Seda turned back half-way. “Oh, you know I’ll keep your little secret. I always have. But don’t be long, because I will not make any excuses for you! I don’t know why I put up with you…” And Seda was gone.
“Nobody understands me…” Alysa sighed, rose and again dabbed her eyes with a sleeve. She smoothed the long smock cover-ing her slight young form and pushed her long braid over her shoulder. Her family was to be honored tonight and, even if she was not happy with her situation, she certainly did not want to shame them before the whole clan by looking untidy—or by continuing to be disagreeable.
Before turning to go back to the homestead, she looked up and down the stream admiring the many small waterfalls gushing over rocks, the tall trees that hugged the shore and curved overhead, and abundant flowers that reached toward sunlight. She inhaled a deep breath of the sweet-scented air. This was her favorite place, and she often came here to be alone. After a whole sun of working in the steamy fields, she liked to sit on the shore and dangle her feet in the cool water. Sometimes she tried to catch swishtails, but they were quick and usually escaped her scooping hands. She liked to come here anytime just to dream in the shade while sitting on a thick cush-ion of moss. This place was her refuge, her place to be alone when she wanted. And only Seda, her best friend, knew about it.
A faint flute melody drifted up through the trees. Soon another joined in, striking up an inspired counter-melody. A gleeful flatdrum quickened the pace. The celebration had begun. On Xunar-kun, every newborn was cause for celebration. Each was considered a blessed treasure. When it’s someone else’s sister, she thought.
Alysa would be required to share the affection her parents lav-ished on her alone for ten whole cycles. But she knew that she must accept this, because she did know, somewhere deep inside, that her parents loved her very much. Despite her sadness, she must make every effort to look happy to have a new sister. For them. From this sun forward. Forever and ever. It was her duty.
Once more she glanced back at the stream, closed her eyes and inhaled, filling her lungs with sweet air. She let the breath out and managed to curve her lips into a small smile. It wasn’t a real smile, as when she felt truly happy, but it was the best she could do given the circumstances.
She opened her eyes and turned toward the path. No sooner did she turn than, sensing something was out of place, she spun back. Her surprised eyes darted to the stream and caught sight of the boy standing on a boulder on the opposite shore. He had replaced his helmet. She looked him up and down, incredulous. He was about her height and age, but she could not recollect seeing him at any Gather-ings.
He said, “No, you do not know me, girl. Have not seen me be-fore, nor I you.”
Her brown eyes stared into his pale-blue ones, seeking recogni-tion. “I’m not wondering so much who I’m looking at,” she laughed, “but what I’m looking at. Why are you dressed like that, boy?”
“And I might ask what such a ‘big girl’ has to sob about on such an amazing evening. On such a splendid streamside, in the most glo-rious season of all. And in such a perfect part of Xunar-kun!”
Alysa sobered. “I wasn’t crying.”
“Yes, you were…look at your face!” He pointed at her and laughed. “It’s an odd thing, seeing a youngling of our age cry. I have only heard such bellowing from newborns, never from someone as old as we are. You are, I am thinking, nearly a midling, as am I. At this age there is no reason to bellow so. I could hear your wailing above the rushing of the water!” The boy leapt on boulders until he stood in the middle of the stream.
“You didn’t answer me. Why are you dressed like that?” Alysa demanded, “Where’s your braid? All boys wear their hair in a braid. It’s not possible that it could be tucked under that…thing on your head.”
“This ‘thing’ is called a helmet. And what is a ‘hair braid’?” He pulled off the helmet to reveal his short, dark-streaked hair.
His short hair! Alysa gasped and took a step back. She had never seen short hair on anyone before. And never having seen a tattoo, she strained to understand what the colorful patterns on his ears and neck meant.
He continued, “I am garbed as such so I can move...like this!” He jumped back and forth between boulders. “Like a greatclaw, from one place…to another. Could you do the same in that sack you’re wearing?”
“Who’d want to?” Alysa retorted, flustered, once again turning to the path.
“A Trailmen would want to!” Alysa stopped short and turned back, a baffled look on her face. The boy said, “I am called ‘Szaren’. These close-fitting hides that I wear are necessary when we are hunt-ing. They allow us to move among the trees with ease. And in silence walk through brush. We always wear them when we are migrating. Which we are doing now. Heading to Winding Mountains for sum-mering.” He pointed upstream at the tall peaks in the distance that gave the appearance of winding up into the sky due to their angled cliffs.
Alysa said, “You’re a…a…”
“Trailmen!” the boy boldly proclaimed.
Then she remembered that the fierce hunter-warriors were often referred to as the Painted Ones. The designs on the boy’s head and his short hair proved that he was, indeed, a Trailmen!
He continued, “And you, I think, must not be Trailmen. Because a garment like the one you are wearing would be of no value to the women of my tribe.” He paused and scrutinized her more carefully. “But if you are not Trailmen, then what are you? What tribe do you belong to?”
Hesitating, Alysa said, “I am a…I am of the Field Folk clan, if that’s what you mean by ‘tribe’.” She stared at the youth as she re-called one of Teller Kendira’s well-known teachings: Field Folk and Trailmen never spoke to each other, nor were they able to, because they did not speak the same tongue. Alysa knew full well that the only time the Folk and Trailmen came face to face was at Trade. Even then not a single word was spoken; tradesign was used. Alysa realized that she may have likely broken a Law by speaking to this Trailmen. Sud-denly she said, “I…but I must go!”
“Field Folk? Ah, you mean you are a ‘Fielder’. That would ex-plain your clothing. And the nakedness of your skin.” He paused then asked, bewildered, “But how is it that we are speaking?”
“I…don’t know. This can’t be!” Alysa hurried to the path.
Szaren looked back at the forest with excitement. The boys and girls who were pursuing him moments before were returning, swing-ing back through the trees.
Alysa glanced back once more to where Szaren had stood, but he was gone. Relieved, she hurried down the long, twisting path and through a wide stand of trees, emerging into the open meadow. On the mountainous horizon beyond the terraced fields, the sky was turning pale purple and gold.
She drew nearer to the music, stopping once to glance back up the path. She shivered, shaking off the encounter with the strange Trailmen boy. What surprised her was that they understood each other. Through spoken words! She was taught that Field Folk and Trailmen spoke different tongues because they long ago descended from a different breed of being. She decided to forget about the en-counter and never tell anyone—even Seda—for fear of ridicule. She hoped this traumatic event would vanish from her memory and that thoughts of the boy would not come to her again.
Crossing the meadow, Alysa approached her family’s cottage. The Field Folk homesteaders—or ‘steaders as they commonly called themselves—spent the sun draping the cottage’s eaves with garlands of flowers and greenery, symbols of new life. They ringed the court-yard with lanterns that would burn well into the night.
The throng of ‘steaders were dressed in festive garb, women and girls in skirts and smocks of many colors and men in their good tu-nics and trousers. Women’s braids were coiled on top of their heads and the men’s long, neat braids hung straight down the middle of their backs. All of the men, except for Alysa’s father, wore beards.
Alysa wiped her face again and forced a smile. She entered the courtyard, aware that she looked disheveled but hoping that no one would notice. She was greeted with joy by Seda and the other girls who wore wreaths of flowers on their heads. Merry Seda, already having forgotten their squabble just a short while before, placed a wreath on Alysa’s head.
Singing and giggling, the girls pulled Alysa into the center of the forming dance circle where she took her place beside her parents. Gray-haired Abso, Alysa’s proud, smiling father, cradled in his arms the small bundle containing her new sister. Abso turned his dark, beardless face to Alysa and looked down at her. His blue eyes spar-kled. He gestured to the new youngling. Alysa tried to look excited.
Loralle, Alysa’s mother, held her hands out to welcome her elder daughter and drew her close. Loralle’s soft, green eyes looked into Alysa’s with loving understanding. She bent down and kissed Alysa on the forehead and tucked a loose piece of her grain-colored hair behind her ear. Loralle turned Alysa toward her father and gently guided her to him.
Abso’s deep voice urged, “Her name is ‘Ellee’. Come, good Daughter. Hold your new sister.”
After a brief hesitation, an awkward but careful Alysa received the newborn. Her father pulled back a fold of blanket to reveal Ellee’s tiny, pale-golden face. Alysa could already see that the youngling re-sembled her father, with wide-set eyes and round face. Ellee’s hair was like her mother’s—thick and the color of spicenuts.
With one look at the newborn’s sweet expression, Alysa’s breath caught, and a soft, genuine smile stretched across her face. She raised her suddenly happy eyes to her parents and snuggled the precious new life she held in her arms. With a gentleness that rose from within, a feeling that was new to her, Alysa kissed the wee one, fi-nally accepting that not only did she have a little sister—but delighting in the realization that she was now someone’s big sister.
Loralle and Abso embraced their daughters as the ‘steaders, with hands linked, danced and sang in a joyous circle around them. The flutes and drums struck up a merry new melody, one of many that would celebrate new life and echo over the terraced fields until long after the sun set.
A chill wind blew from Winding Mountains, and many-colored leaves swirled within it. Billowing, gray clouds extended across the horizon. Leaffall was progressing. Cruel wintertide would soon be in the mountains, accompanied by harsh, crunching snows and long, frigid nights.
A more mature Alysa stood at streamside. She shivered and gath-ered her hooded cloak about her. Her shoulders shook with quiet tears. Six and a half cycles passed since she last wept beside this stream.
Shifts in Xunar-kun’s weather often came unexpectedly. Without warning a sharp gust of wind burst down the stream and tore leaves from nearby trees, lifting them in a high spiral above Alysa. As they sailed upward and disappeared from sight, how she wished she could join them!
The wind whipped off her hood. Hair escaped her pale braid and flailed about her face, which darkened over the cycles to nectar-gold. The wind whisked away her tears.
It was during this time of cycle that she tended to feel sad, as the flowers had departed and the color in the trees was drifting away. The ground was too cold to sit upon. She watched the water as, here and there, a curled leaf tumbled into the stream, floated for an in-stant, and sank in the current.
Ellee’s birth six and a half cycles before was a trying sun for Alysa, one that ended much happier than it began. In the time since then, she and her little sister formed a close bond and were nearly in-separable. Those cycles were good ones, yielding many happy moments. But two suns before, an unexpected sadness came upon her family; there was no chance this sun would end with the slightest hope for joy.
Her father had died, the victim of a mishap. Searchers found Abso’s body downstream after two suns of absence from the home-stead; just five suns after the joyful celebration of Leaffall Moonsfest, and two days before he was to participate in Trade. It seemed that he lost his footing and suffered a fatal head injury as he walked the shore. That was the conclusion reached by the Council Elders.
Earlier this sun, Alysa tried to watch as her mother and other ‘steaders—relatives, friends and neighbors—prepared Abso for his final farewell. They washed his body, which was laid out on a cot in the cottage, and cleaned his hair of blood from the wound on the back of his head. Then they combed and braided his long, gray hair and wrapped him in a near-black robe, the color of the dead. She could not bear to see his coldness, his stillness; or to hear the contin-ual sad chanting. The smell of incense—burned for those departed—made her feel ill.
The loss of a parent, or any loved one, is a shock that one can never prepare for. As she stared at his body, overwhelming grief washed over her. She would never be able to confide in him again; he would never again be able to console her, teach her, praise her—or love her. So she ran to her refuge beside the stream. But this time it did not provide the smallest measure of solace. How she wished that Orryn, her betrothed, could come from Falling Stream to be with her during this hardship; alas, his work—his all-consuming Teller ap-prenticeship—would not allow him to leave his homestead at this time.
Abso’s funeral pyre would burn at dusk, and her family would have to bid final farewell to this wonderful, kind man who reared her and Ellee with a love as deep as their mother’s. At tomorrow’s dawn-ing, Alysa would watch her mother, in pain beyond imagining, gather his ashes and sow them over the fields—every spouse’s trib-ute to a lost partner and, ultimately, everyone’s final contribution to the fields.
The sun began its journey into the hills a little earlier each eve-ning as leaffall progressed. Dusk arrived; the time of her father’s final farewell drew near. Thinking of this was almost too much for her. Still, her mind also dwelt on how he died. His death made no sense. Very few deaths were caused by mishaps such as this, and her father was always very careful when walking the paths to the other home-steads. It did not follow that he would have fallen and suffered such an injury while simply walking along a stream.
She looked to the sky, longing for an answer as to how this could have happened; the sky revealed nothing to her but wind and blow-ing leaves and cold. She lowered her tearful eyes to the ground, turned away from the stream and, in a sad, hesitating manner, began to pick her way down the path.
With sudden furor, she whirled back to Winding Mountains. As if to an invisible presence, she wailed, “Father Gord’n, why did you do this? Why did you take from us the person my family needed most in this world? There wasn’t anyone on Xunar-kun as wonderful as my father! Mother is lost. Ellee is still so young…” Aching for an-swers, she asked, “How can I leave my mother and sister now? How can I leave to join with Orryn and move to his homestead next cycle, as has so long been planned?”
As she awaited an answer, the sky grew darker. Light snowflakes came on the wind. She heard a low whisper that said, Fear not, Be-loved One. All is well!
Startled, she looked around for the one who whispered those words; she thought she saw someone, a dark figure standing in the shadows on the opposite shore of the stream. Almost as quickly as the figure appeared, it vanished. The whisper in her head and the figure’s stature reminded her of—but could not possibly have been—her father. She shook her head and sighed, believing her longing must have devised both the words and the shadowy figure in an at-tempt to achieve some measure of solace.
She already missed her father with a desperate longing; his loss would be the most difficult challenge of their lives. But she knew she must find the courage to help her mother and sister through this time of sorrow. What did courage look like? Did having courage mean she must hide her tears from them? Did it mean she must provide what-ever comfort she could? She did not know; what she knew was that her father would expect her to do what she could to help them.
She wiped her tears, took a deep breath, and pulled up her hood. Turning to the path she had trod many times, she began the descent. How she dreaded long wintertide’s approach!
Tiny green, black-capped birds hopped on the snow-covered ground. Seemingly weightless, the birds whirled and jumped and chee-cheed; they pecked at stray field grains and wildflower seeds that sustained them through wintertide.
The birds scattered as Alysa walked along the curved dwelling terrace. Her heavy cloak swished along the snow-packed path that crossed in front of the cottage yards of High Point Homestead. The birds flew back and resumed work after she passed, making scores of tracks as they hopped and scratched.
It was bitter cold. As Alysa walked, she breathed the sharp air in shallow breaths and held her hood close to her head, covering her mouth. At times her exhales puffed clouds into the air that evapo-rated almost as soon as they escaped her lips. It was during this bitterest of weather that she wondered why her father had built their cottage so far from the Great Hall, her destination. The walk seemed to take forever!
The sky overhead was clear. Angled shadows indicated mid-morning. To the southeast, far beyond the homestead terraces jutting out from the steep hillside, and even beyond Field Folk territory, a shadow of dark clouds hovered. The clouds would be releasing a se-vere storm of some kind, dropping dense hail or ripping the land with whirlwinds or lightning. It was rare for such storms to climb into these sheltered mountains. But occasionally they did make their presence all too well known.
Her gaze passed over the landscape. All along the dwelling ter-race, many neat cottages, sheds and hen coops were enclosed in low-walled courtyards. Smoke rose from chimneys poking through the centers of rooftops. All window shutters were closed tight. Neat stacks of firewood framed cottage walls and courtyards. Cottage gardens lay sleeping beneath the snow.
Folk men, women and their younglings, dressed in warm jackets and cloaks, conducted daily chores—drawing water from wells, stacking wood, filling troughs with feed for the long-legged casish hens, and pulling wheeled carts filled with supplies along the snow-packed paths.
Above the dwelling terrace, northward-ascending orchard ter-races were planted with fruit and nut trees. Looking like bare bones sticking up out of the snow, in greening they would be soft and bright with blossoms and young leaves; later their branches would bend under the weight of their fruit. How Alysa yearned to see the orchards flowering once again!
Downslope, the stubble of oil-seed, simmel and other grains and vegetables poked up through the snow of thirty descending field ter-races. The fifth terrace down was where her mother had spread her father’s ashes; they now lay beneath the snow, waiting to be tilled under when planting commenced. Abso’s body, and all who received their final farewell, lived on in the crops that were grown. Alysa smiled, content that one day her ashes would join his and all the oth-ers who preceded her. This had always been the Field Folk way.
In barnyards spaced at intervals across the terraces, people tended herds of bleating, wooly udommo, bulky leaprock lambs and other stock.
Farther south, below the last terrace, slept the frozen blue-white lake. Its far shore blended into the lake’s cradling hills. Tall foya trees spackled the shore and looked like deep-green shadows laden with snow.
Alysa smiled, aware that soon wintertide would release its grip and surrender to greening; after all, this was the last sun of the win-tertide season. A healthy glow had returned to her face. She mourned her father’s death during this long wintertide. Though she still missed him—and would forever miss him—brighter thoughts were at last returning.
She forwent the recognition of her seventeenth birth two moons before because she did not feel joyful enough to celebrate it—or to celebrate anything. Perhaps next cycle her family would be ready to acknowledge their birth suns. Perhaps by then her mother would re-joice in living again.
She rounded the curve of the terrace and beheld her destina-tion—the Great Hall. This was where all High Point Gatherings were held and where the crafters labored. The structure sat on the center rim of the dwelling terrace, facing the lake and overlooking the fields and barns. Behind it were several large storage sheds and the home-stead Pantry, a structure also of great importance to the homestead.
The Great Hall was built in the same style, stone and logs as were the cottages, but was much larger. Four tall chimneys released curls of smoke into the sky. Closed shutters over tall windows preserved heat given forth by large hearths positioned in each corner of the in-terior. Unlike a cottage with simple enclosed entryways on the front and back, the Great Hall had entries on the front, left and right sides. They were accessed by stone and sod-packed ramps for ease of load-ing in raw materials for crafting, and for the removal of finished goods to the Pantry and storage sheds. Between the front and right-side ramp sat many rows of firewood and a covered well.
Alysa trudged up the front ramp, recently swept of snow. She pulled open one of the tall, heavy doors. Carvings of Winding Moun-tains stood out in relief on each door. She entered the hallway, stomped her boots on the coarse mat and shut the door behind her. On one of many pegs along the wall, she hung her cloak. She slipped off her boots and set them down among orderly rows of hundreds. The floor was cold, even through her thick-socked feet. Hopping from foot to foot, she quickly pulled out a pair of woolen slippers from a cubby and slipped them on.
Pushing through another door, she entered the great room, hug-ging herself to dispel the chill from the hallway. She moved with caution as her eyes adjusted to the dim interior. Many red clay oil lanterns hung from high, hand-hewn support beams that spanned the wide room. All four hearths blazed, giving much-appreciated re-lief from the cold. Line upon line of dried fruits and vegetables were strung on twine between the walls. Many benches were stacked along the side walls.
In the center of the back wall hung the immense, round Planting Calendar, an imposing, complex carving used by the Folk to plan and track seasonal activities.
Women and older girls worked looms, spun wool, sewed gar-ments, knitted hats and mittens, and fashioned baskets. Soft wool and other materials were mounded beside the craftswomen. In the rear of the room, craftsmen and boys worked hides to fashion boots and slippers. They molded clay lamps, dishes and pots.
Every ‘steader contributed to the wellbeing of the clan. Although some of the aged were limited in their ability to work, they did their share. Being productive was everyone’s duty. From this principle the ‘steaders derived a great sense of pride.
The women gossiped as they worked, regarding Alysa as she en-tered. Erindi and Malores, girls her age, minded several newborn younglings and wobblies—younglings just learning to walk. The younglings belonged to the craftswomen. It was typical to bring them to the Great Hall while they worked. This gave midling girls with little exposure to newborns much-needed experience in how to care for them in the hope that they would bear their own after they joined.
The girls grinned and waved to Alysa, and she nodded back. She sighed as she spotted her mother sitting apart from the other women. Loralle wove a basket, oblivious to any of the conversations. The women of the homestead were patient. They believed that Loralle was close to regaining her zest for life. Alysa, who knew her mother better than anyone, was not so certain.
As she crossed to one of the hearths to warm her hands, Alysa looked back at Loralle, still in deep despair since Abso’s death. She remembered when her mother’s skin was a lively mellow-gold; now her color was sallow and dull. Her normally neat, spicenut-colored braid was loose and falling apart. Loralle’s green eyes lacked life, as if a flame inside her had gone out. She was thin now, although before Abso’s death she was rather plump.
Alysa and her mother shared a strong bond; her mother taught her all the skills she would need to reach her potential as a produc-tive Field Folk woman. At one time, they were able to talk about anything. But in recent moons, they hadn’t talked at all. She missed her mother and longed for her return to the way she used to be be-fore Abso died.
Many boys and girls, all with braids trailing down their backs, were seated on fur-covered benches near the opposite hearth. Alysa joined them. They were listening to a story being told by Kendira, the aged Teller. Quiet girls were snuggled in thick shawls of various col-ors. Some of the older boys whittled with small blades, flicking wood shavings into the hearth and looking up occasionally as Kendira re-cited a story.
Kendira’s age was obvious, not only made apparent by the pure white of her thin, braided hair, but because her color was very dark-gold creased with deep wrinkles. Several long, white whiskers grew from her chin. Wrapped in a shawl that covered a dark-brown smock, Kendira was seated on a cushioned stool. In one aged, swol-len-knuckled hand she clutched a walking staff.
Seated among the small faces reflecting firelight was Ellee, Alysa’s round-faced, blue-eyed sister, now grown into a fine girl of six cycles. It seemed as though Ellee was recovering well from their father’s absence, and Alysa was happy for this. Ellee’s aliveness made life bearable. That Alysa resented her before she was born now seemed so foolish!
Alysa sat on a stool and watched in admiration as Kendira plied her skills.
“…and then Father Gord’n came to the aid of the people who were in great confusion. All types of people—young and old, men and women, boys and girls—were gathered together by Father Gord’n just before Cat’clysm!”
The younglings responded with whispers and frightened expres-sions to this one of many brave stories of Father Gord’n.
Kendira gestured throughout the Telling. She was entrancing, ac-centing a passage with fervent, dark-gray eyes, her face and body expressing as she explained, in the finest Teller form, yet another feat of Father Gord’n. Though her bones were growing brittle and she walked with a limp, Kendira still showed great skill in Telling and was well respected for her wisdom and patience with the younglings.
“It is so true!” Kendira’s engaging voice continued, “Our people were city dwellers and they knew nothing about survival in the wilds of Xunar-kun. Father Gord’n was a man of great, great knowledge. He knew everything about the seasons and planting and the moun-tains. And he brought the very first people to Falling Stream, our brother homestead to the south, to be spared from Cat’clysm!”
Kendira paused and, with a shaky hand, lifted a clay cup to her lips. The younglings whispered to each other in wide-eyed wonder. She struck her staff on the floor, startling them. They immediately fell silent, all eyes once again upon her. She leaned forward and looked into their eyes. “He taught us how to tame the wild. How to build. How to fish the lakes. How to plant by the moons. So therefore, we were spared! Over time our numbers increased. He sent our people to dwell in the other directions, to the north, west and east, to settle new homesteads and to build and plant new fields. That’s how the five homesteads, including our own High Point, came to be!” She thumped her walking staff on the floor and sat back, signaling the end of the Telling.
The younglings jumped up and clustered around her, each shout-ing a different question about Father Gord’n. She rose and held up a quieting hand. When they became silent, she explained, “You must be patient! For there are too many wonderful stories about Father Gord’n to be told all at one time!”
With a wave of her hand, the younglings dispersed, running to the center of the room in excitement to retell the story amongst them-selves. They shouted, “I want to be Father Gord’n!” “You can’t, you’re a girl!” Some of the women shushed them, and the younglings played more quietly.
Alysa snatched Ellee as she ran by, and they hugged. “Ho, Thitha!” Ellee lisped, “I love that story!”
“It’s my favorite one too, Ellee.”
Ellee ran off to play with the other younglings.
Spent from the Telling, Kendira lowered her old body onto her seat. She motioned to Alysa, who wasted not a moment going to her. Alysa gestured reverence by opening her hands palms-up and lower-ing her gaze to the floor. Such respect was paid to all Folk of rank.
Kendira said, “It’s been some time since we’ve talked, young-ling.”
Alysa looked away, uneasy, unable to escape Kendira’s question-ing, dark-gray eyes. “Teller Kendira, it was not my intention to avoid…”
“Come to my cottage after this evening’s Gathering. We will talk then,” Kendira commanded, squinting intently into Alysa’s brown eyes.
Alysa nodded and Kendira waved her off. Alysa backed away palms-up and went to her mother.
“Ho, Mother…” But Loralle was not aware that Alysa was at her side; nor did she hear her greeting. Alysa bent down and kissed her mother on top of her head and stroked her spicenut-colored braid.
Ellee rushed up and hugged her mother, but Loralle did not re-spond. “Oh, Mother, wasn’t that the best ever story about Father Gord’n?” Ellee squatted and picked up a split reed. Her long braid, the same color as her mother’s, fell in front of her. She flung it over her back. “I’m nearly old enough to learn baskets, Mother. Will you show me? I can sit right next to you!” Receiving no response from Loralle, Ellee’s blue eyes turned sad.
Alysa bent down and placed an arm around Loralle’s thin shoul-ders. She looked into her mother’s tired, distant face. Loralle stopped working and stared at her hands. Ellee pouted, and Alysa gathered her with the other arm.
A memory came to Alysa’s mind of a happier sun, when they were still a family—when her father was alive. Ellee, then a wobbly, was taking her first steps by herself. The family was playing a game in which Abso hid a small toy in his hand. They were having good fun watching Ellee figure out which hand it was in. Abso was de-lighted when she picked the correct one. He threw a joyful arm around Loralle.
Alysa recalled her father’s words that sun. With pride he re-marked, “Ellee is almost as keen as you were at this age, Alysa. Have you been teaching her some of your tricks, Daughter?” They all laughed at his observation. They laughed a lot back then. Her thoughts returned to the not-so-happy present. She said to Ellee, “Soon, Sister. Mother will teach you basket-making soon.”
Comforted for the moment, Ellee skipped off to play with her friends.
It was apparent that Loralle was still unable to accept Abso’s death. He was her lifelong partner, betrothed almost since infancy. They considered themselves a perfect match. Alysa whispered, “I know how much you miss him, Mother. Five moons just haven’t been enough…”
She looked up and saw her clanswomen’s sympathetic stares. They looked back to their work, but it was plain that they worried for Loralle. Alysa’s throat tightened as her eyes filled with tears. She forced a smile through her fear, kissed her mother on the cheek, and hugged her close. To the women she nodded a silent, “Thank you.”
Alysa: "Listen to those words, Orryn. That same song has been sung for probably one hundred generations! There are no new songs because there are no new events to sing about. No new legends are being made, because cycle after cycle, nothing different ever happens!"
One girl's mission to understand the forces that divided her world
By Bill Jaker, WSKG Radio (PBS), Binghamton, NY
In an era of computer games, action figures and movies that defy gravity, young people have not abandoned good ol' books. Fantasy and science fiction are especially popular, as are books that deal the challenges of growing up in an environment that sometimes seems strange and threatening. And if it's a really good story it helps if there's a promise of more to come. All these genres, themes and promise whirl about "Alysa of the Fields", an action- and emotion-packed 300-page novel that's especially aimed at midlings.
"Midlings" is one of the words coined for this book by author Tina Field Howe to refer to those adolescents no longer "younglings". The characters inhabit a planet called Xunar-kun (pronounced shoo-nar-KOON, according to the glossary in the back of the book). Xunar-kun earlier suffered massive destruction - and event known as the Cat'clysm - but life has settled down and people can again scrape by. The gentle Field Folk carry on their lives in a bucolic environment and a hierarchical society, guided by the ancient teachings of Father Gord'n. But they are not alone in the world. Across rugged terrain the Trailmen exist in a civilization that is hardly more advanced. The only contact between Field Folk and Trailmen is a seasonal trading ritual, conducted in sign language since they supposedly don't speak the same language.
The sweet and stagnant life of the Field Folk is disrupted by the apparent murder of one of the skilled Traders. His seventeen year-old daughter Alysa must take on new responsibilities in her family, and seeks also to fill her father's role by becoming the first female Trader. Her arranged marriage to Orryn - who is learning to be a Teller, a kind of griot or oral historian - is cancelled. But her new occupation brings her in contact with the Trailmen, and despite sharing her people's suspicion of the foreign tribe, Alysa enters their territory and is nursed back to health by them after a harrowing trek.
It seemed that fielders knew very little about survival; perhaps there was no need, as it was known that they preferred to live in large, stationary dwellings with many people around for comfort. But alone, without existing shelter, they were paralyzed. This Fielder demonstrated that very deficiency. Alysa would not have lived through the night if that morning Szaren was away from camp as the Trailmen packers returned from leaving the goods at the Tradeground. Word went around that the persistent girl had returned. A few speculated as to what surprise she was hiding away to try to wrangle the best trade this time!
-- from Alysa of the Fields
Alysa discovers that the Trailmen and the Field Folk are kin, holding different beliefs and practices but actually speaking the same language. They are all threatened by the M'raudas, sub-human creatures who have been kidnapping the younglings. The two nations must form an alliance and, in a violent battle, they conquer the M'raudas. Meanwhile, Orryn has discovered suppressed works of Father Gord'n that purport to reveal the destruction of the glorious cities of Xunar-kun thousands of years earlier. "Alysa of the Fields" is a novel of action and romance with political, religious and philosophical dimensions. It is also "Book One of the Tellings of Xunar-kun", initiating a series by Tina Field Howe.
Tina is a native of Waverly, NY and is an artist as well as a writer. She wrote and illustrated "Snailsworth: a slow little story" in both prose and verse, and also created the cover art for "Alysa of the Fields". Her work extends to graphic design, business communication, digital art, photography and even stained glass windows. She is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Tina Field Howe joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE for a visit to Xunar-kun and an exploration of imaginative fiction for young people (though readers into their 80s have read and enjoyed Alysa's adventures).
I believe strongly in promoting local authors, and Tina Field Howe makes this easy.
by Kasey Cox, from my shelf books, Wellsboro Gazette
I believe strongly in promoting local authors, and Tina Field Howe makes this easy. Tina is located in Corning, NY, and has a beautiful website showcasing her many talents as artist, illustrator, graphic designer, writer, and editor. She works with media as diverse as stained glass to screenplays. Most recently, I have had the pleasure of becoming absorbed in Tina's novel, "Alysa of the Fields". The first in a series, Alysa's story tells of life on Xunar-kun, a planet with many similarities to Earth, with a history that is a cautionary "what-if" parallel to our own. Howe smoothly combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, anthropology, survival stories, spirituality, nature studies, and young adult fiction. I found "Alysa of the Fields" to be a compelling, though not heavy-handed read, one that should be engaging for teens and adults alike.
I like some science fiction and fantasy, but I tend to be picky. When I started out with "Alysa of the Fields", I was a little leery, afraid that it would be one more science fiction story where the author indulges in creating a different planet with beings that have exotic fur or colors or brow ridges, but are otherwise humanoid. That's one thing I personally don't like about many sci-fi series on TV: I get bored with the "planet- and new-alien-culture-of-the-week" approach. This, however, is exactly where Tina Howe triumphs. Her background in anthropology and her creative interest in people shine through in her descriptions of life among the Field-Folk and the Trailmen. Tina includes explanations of how people in these two separate tribes have adapted to daily life these 3,000 years "A.C." (After Cataclysm). Included are details about how they cook their food, what they eat, their style of dress, their matrimonial ceremonies, their division of labor, their pets, and so much more. None of this is boring, since it is well incorporated into the storyline. I never felt I was reading description for descriptions' sake.
Like any society, stories and skills, beliefs and traditions are taught, practiced, and passed on to insure the survival of Alysa's people, the Field-Folk. Besides twice-yearly meetings for trade, during which a form of sign language is used, the "Folk" do not interact with the Trailmen, whom they believe to be a fierce, aggressive, dangerous people. But the Folk and the Trailmen are on the cusp of tremendous, far-reaching changes. Alysa, quite unintentionally at first, is the catalyst.
Alysa is a likeable character, perhaps made all the more so by the fact that she is a somewhat unlikely heroine. She displays no unusual talents, has felt no calling to special work in her young life. She has been content to work in the fields, and keep house with her family. Alysa is genuine, caring, and loyal; she is firmly dedicated to those she loves. Following her strength of heart has never caused her problems, until the sudden death of her father changes the plans made for her adult life. Having no knowledge of the events she will set in motion, or of the consequences for all the inhabitants of the planet, she begins to question the traditions of her people, their beliefs about the strange Trailmen, the history they have always taught. With these events, and with Alysa's actions, we the readers find many ways to connect with and learn from this book. Tina Howe has created a story that celebrates following your convictions and that encourages us to look at people who are different from us with respectful curiosity, openness, tolerance, and a desire to learn.
Tina has hit a home-run with her new book.
By Anne Mage, StoryLines Books & Cafe, Watkins Glen, NY
Tina has hit a home-run with her new book. It is engaging and well-paced. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to sit down and have a good read. Can't wait for the next one!