Lowen was able to pass unseen into Krenn, the Scrat village that was as much a part of the forest as the trees were. She could hear the drums and panflutes before she reached the fires of her home. The entire tribe swarmed in the vast clearing at the village centre, gathered around a pyre built so high that Lowen had to shield her eyes against the heat and light.
“Lowen,” Talwyn called, hurrying to her side. “I’ve been looking for you, I thought you were going to miss the festival.”
“I’ve never seen such an enormous fire,” Lowen said.
“Yes, your mother has outdone herself,” Talwyn replied. She took hold of Lowen’s hands and began dragging her closer to a circle of dancing Scrat, whirling and leaping around the fire. “Come on,” she said. “Even Jenifer is dancing tonight.”
Lowen searched the ecstatic faces for her sister, smiling when she saw her. It was strange to see Jenifer joining in the celebration of Aikana’s return with such abandon. Her usual serious demeanour had melted away, replaced by a rapture that made her glow in the firelight. Lowen and Talwyn fell into step beside her and she laughed to see them, clapping her hands above her head.
“Blessed night,” she shouted in greeting above the pounding of the drums.
“Blessed night,” Lowen shouted back.
Lowen’s mounting secrets burned in her chest. When she closed her eyes all she could see was Nicanor’s face, his kind eyes wide with shock. It may have been the Changing of the Moons but Lowen just wanted to crawl into bed and pull a blanket over her head. She knew that was impossible so instead, she concentrated on the drum beat. Large drums were positioned all around the clearing, the drummer’s hair flying as they pounded the animal skins with drumsticks as long as their forearms. Lowen forced herself to move to the rhythm, to lose herself in the soaring melodies of the panpipes. Her body turned and leapt with her tribe, using muscle memory formed from countless dances and celebrations.
As they made their way around the fire, another performance was taking place closer to the flames, inside the tribe’s revolving circle. Rosen, a young girl of fourteen, was dressed in the raiment of Aikana. Her long purple skirts floated about her legs like fine mist as she danced with her silver partner, Endel. He wore a light coloured tunic and breeches embroidered with twisting silver thread to represent the male moon, Mamai. All eyes were on them as they moved closer together, almost touching before springing apart once more. Glittering Mamai eventually submitted to Aikana, leaping one final time before the flames to land kneeling before her, his head bowed. The Scrat erupted into cheers, holding each other and stamping their feet on the ground in time to the constant drumbeat. This was the culmination of their dance. Aikana had moved beyond Mamai, his influence had passed away and the Changing of the Moons was complete.
“They danced well,” Jenifer whispered to Lowen. “Rosen and Endel were a good choice.”
“They were,” Lowen agreed. “Congratulations, sister.” Lowen knew that Jenifer had been taking over more of their mother’s duties of late, readying herself for succeeding as Chieftain of the Wild Scrat. Organising these festivities had fallen to her.
The drums and panflutes finally fell silent as Kerra stepped up onto a plinth at the head of the clearing. The rising pyre lit her red hair like a flame against the violet night.
“We gather tonight to welcome Aikana, our Mother Moon,” their leader began. “Blessed night, my children.”
“Blessed night,” the Scrat returned as one.
“In the north, they fear Aikana,” Kerra continued. “They believe she brings destruction and misery. We know better than those Armorian fools.” This was met with cheers from those listening. “The wheel has turned. Mamai’s time is over and Aikana has bloomed once again. We are the Wild Scrat, we do not fear change, we embrace it. I invite our Scrat daughters to step forward and adorn our most beloved tree with their intentions. Release your hopes and dreams to Aikana and she will guide you to them.”
As Kerra stepped down from the plinth Jenifer turned back to Lowen. “Have you written an intention?” she asked.
“Of course I have,” Lowen said.
“What did you write?”
“They’re supposed to be kept a secret.”
On the other side of the fire, women were beginning to crowd beneath the immense, hoary oak tree they called the Scrat-Heart. It was gnarled and immeasurably ancient, twisted with its own sleeping magick. Many legends surrounded the tree. Its sap was said to be a cure for infertility and the Scrat used its leaves as a poultice to treat all manner of wounds. In springtime, the Scrat-Heart blossomed with an abundance of curious, pale orange flowers and long, trailing catkins, unlike any other oak tree in Nymed. The honeyed scent of its blooms filled the violet night and Lowen lifted her face to the air, inhaling deeply. A ladder had been placed against the wide trunk. One by one, the women of the tribe climbed it, holding aloft small rolls of parchment wrapped in purple ribbon. These they carefully tied to the myriad branches. Each intention was a deeply held wish, written in small, neat handwriting with black ink. Lowen had written hers before meeting with Nicanor that evening. She put a hand in the pocket of her leather tunic, suddenly afraid her sister would try to snatch it away. Her hopes and dreams were for Aikana to know only.
Jenifer’s eyes followed the movement of Lowen’s hand and she smirked. “Come now, surely you’re not embarrassed? What secret could you be keeping?”
“Lowen has no secrets,” Talwyn said, returning with a cup of dark blackberry mead. “You’re a sweet, simple soul, aren’t you, my dear? If only we could all be as content as you.”
Lowen was quite sure the cup of mead in Talwyn’s hand was not her first. “Shall we take our turn?” she suggested, attempting to change the subject.
The three women joined the crowd beneath the Scrat-Heart and waited for an opportunity to climb the ladder. The panflute players had regrouped beside the tree, their heads tilted skyward as they serenaded the luminous purple moon. Rosen danced between them in her gossamer skirts, beckoning women to step forward with their intentions.
“I will tell you what I wrote,” Jenifer suddenly said.
Lowen felt a twinge of guilt, wishing she could satisfy her sister’s curiosity. “I can guess what you wrote,” she said kindly. “You wish to be elected Chieftain when it is time for Mother to present you to the tribe.”
“I will be elected Chieftain,” Jenifer said. “No, I wished to be granted the wisdom to become a great leader. Greater even than Mother.”
“I’m sure you will be,” Lowen said.
“Now, tell me your intention.”
“I would rather keep it between myself and Aikana,” Lowen replied.
Jenifer’s face darkened. “I’m sure it’s extremely tedious, anyway,” she said. “I suppose you wish to be a better archer or to attract a mate. You would need Aikana’s help with that, you’re certainly no great beauty.”
Lowen turned away so Jenifer couldn’t see how badly she had hurt her. “I didn’t know you placed such value on beauty.”
“I don’t,” Jenifer said. “But you can’t hunt or track either. You would make a poor wife.”
“Maybe I don’t want to be a wife,” Lowen spat, her face flushing with sudden anger.
“That’s enough now,” Talwyn said. Her voice was calm but she cast a reproachful glare at Jenifer. “Tonight is not a night for fighting.”
“I’m simply concerned about my little sister,” Jenifer said. “I know you wish to have children of your own someday, Lowen. I want to help you find a mate.” She sighed, placing a hand on Lowen’s shoulder. She fought not to flinch away. “You have never taken criticism well,” Jenifer continued, her voice softening. “I only meant that I hope you have addressed some of these concerns in your intention, so Aikana might help you overcome your unfortunate shortcomings.”
Lowen wanted to scream at her sister. She imagined leaping at her and scratching her face with her nails. She remained placid, her hands curled into fists at her sides. She refused to embarrass herself by causing a scene beneath the sacred boughs of the Scrat-Heart, of all places.
Jenifer had been right about one thing, Lowen didn’t look like the other Wild Scrat. She was a full head shorter than her warrior sister and although she shared the flame-red hair of her kin, it had never grown far beyond her shoulders. The other Scrat, men as well as women, wore their hair long, plaited and teased into dreadlocks threaded with bright beads and vibrantly coloured feathers. The only adornments Lowan wore were a single pair of amethyst earrings crafted by her late father, the only piece of him she had left, and the silver ring she kept hidden on a chain against her chest, inscribed with the satyr rune for ‘love’.
Even Lowen’s childhood games had differed from those played by her elder sister. Jenifer was the double of their mother with her dark eyes, strong features and tightly muscled arms built for hoisting a spear. Her games were of battle and conquest, while Lowen insisted on playing with the doll her grandmother had made for her from rags and straw. Jenifer often used the doll for target practice.
“Why do you always play the same games?” Jenifer would say when Lowen attempted to rescue the poor, bedraggled thing. “You’re so boring, Lowan. Let me fashion a bow for your little doll, then you can both join my campaign.”
“I do not want a silly bow,” Lowan would reply. Her sister saw tears as a great weakness and so she always looked away and hid her face in her sleeve instead.
“Take your turn to deliver your intention,” Talwyn said, placing a hand on the small of Lowen’s back to gently encourage her forward.
Lowen withdrew the rolled parchment from her pocket. She began to move towards the ladder but was stopped by Jenifer’s hand on her wrist.
“Wait,” she said. “You still haven’t told us what you wrote.”
“Just leave her alone,” Talwyn said. “Lowen’s secrets are hers to keep.”
“There should be no secrets between sisters,” Jenifer insisted.
To Lowen’s horror, Jenifer tried to grab the roll from her hand. Lowen struggled to keep it from her reach but her sister’s arms were longer than hers and her strong hand closed around Lowen’s small one.
“I beg you, Jenifer,” Lowen pleaded, “let me be.”
“Just show me your sodding intention,” Jenifer said, her voice becoming shrill.
Jenifer finally ripped the small roll of parchment free from Lowen’s fingers. As Lowen began to shake, imagining her sister’s reaction when she deciphered the truth of her relationship with Nicanor, a saviour dived from the branches of the oak tree. Lowen let out a gasp of relief when she saw the flash of black and white launch itself at Jenifer’s hand. With a cry, Jenifer let the parchment fall to the ground, swatting furiously at the magpie who had sliced a sizable cut in her thumb with its sharp beak and was now beating its wings in her face.
“Odelin, to me,” Lowen commanded.
The magpie immediately stopped its assault and flew gracefully to the ground, retrieving the intention in its beak before fluttering up to perch on Lowen’s shoulder.
“That bird is a menace,” Jenifer growled. “Mother will be hearing about this.” Mustering as much dignity as she could, Jenifer turned and marched out of the clearing, her bleeding hand held to her chest.
“That was quite the performance,” a soft voice said from behind Lowen.
Lowen turned to see her grandmother standing there, wrapped tightly in a red, woollen shawl despite the season’s warmth. Her long, bone-white hair lifted from her shoulders in the evening breeze.
“Oh, Grandmother,” Lowen said. “I didn’t mean to wound Jenifer.”
“No, but she meant to wound you so maybe she got what she deserved.”
The old woman turned to Talwyn who had been watching the entire spectacle with wide eyes. “Talwyn, my dear. Would you mind hanging Lowen’s intention with your own? It is time we joined the celebrations.”
Talwyn nodded dumbly, lifting her hand towards Odelin so the bright-eyed bird could drop the roll of parchment into her palm.
Her grandmother began to move away, one hand on Lowen’s arm. Just before they stepped out from under the boughs of the tree she turned back to Talwyn. “You’d better not read it either, Talwyn. I will know if you do.” Talwyn nodded again and started to climb the ladder.
“Why does Jenifer hate me?” Lowen whispered once they were out of earshot. She was on the verge of tears.
“Silly child,” her grandmother said. “Jenifer loves you. It is jealousy that makes her actions ugly.”
Lowen shook her head in confusion. “Why would Jenifer be jealous of me? You heard her, I can’t track or hunt. She is skilled at both.”
“Yes,” Grandmother agreed. “Jenifer works very hard to please your mother. She’s jealous of you because she believes you don’t have to.”
“She believes Mother favours me? She is very much mistaken, I am no daughter a Scrat mother could be proud of.”
The old woman stopped. “Lowen, your awful words are hurting my ears.” She lifted her hands to the sides of her head, feigning pain. “You must not talk about yourself like that. Of course your mother is proud of you. You have a gentle heart, that is something to be prized in this world. She is harder on Jenifer because she is her heir and will soon, Aikana willing, take on the responsibility of leading our tribe. If only Jenifer could see that. Your mother protects your heart while nurturing Jenifer’s strength. Such a balancing act is no easy task and I know she worries for both of you.”
“I never wanted to worry her,” Lowen said, her voice rising.
“Worry is a mother’s constant companion,” her grandmother replied. “There is nothing you or I or Aikana herself can do to change that.” She reached for Lowen’s hand and squeezed her fingers tightly. “Jenifer will learn to be kinder,” she said. “She will have to or she may well lose the election. Just have patience with her.”
They had reached the feasting tables. The Scrat had been hoarding supplies all year and now there was a plethora of food spread out on wooden tables that ran right down one side of the clearing. Fruits and vegetables of all sizes and colours were piled in shallow dishes. Sweet plaited bread infused the night air with a nutty aroma and jugs of ale, mead and thick, red wine were quickly emptying. Lowen reached for a bread roll, sticky with honey glaze, and picked off crumbs to feed to Odelin who was still perched on her shoulder. Grandmother clapped her hands in delight as she surveyed the tables. She shrugged her shawl from her shoulders, draping it over the branch of an overhanging tree. Although Lowen’s heart was heavy with many worries, her grandmother never failed to make her smile.
“I desire a drink,” the old woman announced.
“Let me pour for you, Koth Conwen,” said a young man beside her.
“Thank you so much, young Clem,” she replied. As he bent to retrieve a jug from the back of the table, Lowen was certain she caught her grandmother’s twinkling gaze alight on his rear. She nudged her in embarrassment but Grandmother only laughed. “Allow me my small fancies,” she whispered to Lowen. “I do no more than look, after all.”
Clem returned with a cup of wine. “Am I too old for mead, young man?,” Conwen teased him.
Clem gaped, flustered. “No, of course not, Koth Conwen. I only thought that—”
“Calm yourself,” Conwen interrupted. “I thank you for the wine, it is perfectly acceptable.” She waved him away before turning to Lowen and adding, “It is perfectly serviceable, I should have said.” She grimaced before drinking the entire cup in one long swallow.
“Yet you have still managed to drain your cup, I see,” Lowen said, giggling.
“No wine for you though, dear. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Lowen’s mirth halted abruptly as she watched her grandmother’s gaze fall to her stomach. It was flat beneath her tight leather tunic, but she knew she would soon begin to show as the baby inside her grew. A sick horror washed over her. Her face blanched and her mouth suddenly felt very dry.
Her grandmother lifted her hands to Lowen’s face, stopping her from speaking. She startled Odelin who launched himself up into the violet dark with an indignant rustle of feathers. Grandmother smiled at Lowen, her face creasing into familiar, careworn lines. Then the moment passed. The music beneath the tree continued to fill the clearing. The fire roared into the night while the Scrat surrounding them on all sides chattered over bowls of food and passed each other drinks.
“We must dance!” Conwen announced, grabbing one of Lowen’s hands and leading her towards the whirling bodies still moving around the pyre.
Lowen was left to wonder if she had simply imagined what had passed between them. The thought was a comforting one, but a feeling of dread still lay over her like a shroud.