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It was early; nearly everyone was eating breakfast in their houses. Kunabei -- now Rai-Kunabei -- had been woken before dawn by her grandfather. He had given her breakfast, though she could hardly eat any of it. Then he handed her his mother's heavy bag of divination disks and her setting-blanket. With his finger to his lips, for the youngest children were still sleeping, he shooed her outdoors and down the short trail to the center of town, carrying his lightweight chair. Author's Notes
Speechless, Rai-Kunabei had followed him to the old oak that had been her haven when she was younger. The bells strung over the rooftops and hanging in the trees chimed softly in the wind. Now she looked again at the oak, whose twisted roots formed a natural backrest. Her great grandmother had sat there, offering wisdom to the tribe, and indulgently letting Kunabei climb the tree or sit on the blanket next to her.
But Rai-Konalei had been dead for two years. In all that time, Kunabei had not found refuge anywhere but the high mountains, far from anyone but goats. Now she leaned her prayer staff against the old tree, let the bag of metal disks fall loudly to the ground, and kicked its twisted roots. "The goats need me."
Her grandfather smiled at her tolerantly. "Your sister, Kiralei, is perfectly competent to take care of the goats."
"But they're my responsibility."
The old man settled into the chair he'd brought, set his slender prayer staff into the loops built into the chair to hold it upright, and waved his hand at the scorched ball whistle at Kunabei's belt. "You have other responsibilities now, Rai-Kunabei." He stressed the word "bright", the new honorific given only to priestesses and priests.
Kunabei had known that her status would change if she admitted to killing the wraith. But it had only been yesterday that she had come down off the mountain with the ball hidden in her empty foodsack. "But I--I'm not--"
"Ready? It's not about you. These people haven't had anyone to turn to since Rai-Konalei died." Kunabei noted that he looked sad. She realized that he always looked sad when he mentioned his mother.
"Don't I need training? Or something?"
"Kunabei, you were your grandmother's companion and assistant from when you could first walk until the day she died."
Kunabei still missed her great grandmother terribly. "So?"
"What makes you think anyone could offer you better training than you got from her?"
She realized people would be saying Konalei had known she would succeed her as Rai. She frowned. "The disks show the present, not the future."
Her grandfather nodded as if she'd said something wise. "You see?"
She glared at him. She didn't mind him being right--that was what grandparents were for--but she did mind him using her own words as his proof.
The day brightened suddenly as the sun crested the low hills to the east. "Now get that blanket spread and sit yourself down before people hear you grumbling."
Rai-Kunabei rolled her eyes, but did as she was told.
"And set that ball whistle down right in front for people to see."
She did, only now noticing that he had his mother's ball whistles--Konalei had hit her wraith with both balls, and had a matched pair of iridescent, deformed whistles--and had hung them from the arm of his chair. He wasn't about to let anyone question whether she was trying to claim her great-grandmother's honor. Not that she would, of course, and never mind that anyone with a nose could smell that her encounter was recent. She would be glad when the unpleasant scent wore off. "I still think I'd be more useful herding the goats."
"You think so?--Ah, Mayor Vraito's coming out of her house." He lowered his voice. "It's time for me to stop talking. Don't worry, lern, you'll do fine."
Suddenly, Kunabei realized that the chief of the tribe was looking directly at her. It felt different than when old Vraito had looked at her great grandmother. What would Vraito say to her? What if--
Vraito walked directly toward her, leaning stiffly down to pick up the scorched ball-whistle. She sniffed it. "So, how long did you wait before coming back down to the village, Rai?"
Kunabei swallowed. The words were a challenge, but she didn't understand enough to know what to say in response. "M-more than a tenday," she admitted. "My ankle--I twisted my ankle, fighting the wraith."
The mayor laughed. "Konalei didn't come down until the end of the summer. We all thought she'd died up there with her family's goats."
Rai-Kunabei gaped at her while the old woman pulled a long leather thong out of her pocket.
Mayor Vraito smiled at her, tied the thong to the ball whistle, and reached for Kunabei's prayer staff. "For the first decade, you have to keep metal that was in contact with wraiths out of the mouths of small children."
The first decade--a decade sounded like forever to Rai-Kunabei. She watched while the Mayor slowly tied her whistle to her prayer staff, dimly aware that other people were coming out of their houses, watching and making quiet comments. When the Mayor had things arranged to her liking--the ruined whistle hung low enough for older children to touch, but not low enough for any toddler to reach--she set Kunabei's staff in the stone hole that was reserved for the Rai's use.
Then the old woman carefully lowered herself to the ground in front of Kunabei, waving her away when she started to get up to help. She raised her voice, "Welcome back to our village, Rai. The Kuleilyi had no priestess at the turning of the year. As chief, I am here to request our yearly reading. But first, if you would kindly indulge an old woman, I will have breakfast brought to us, and have the children spread the word, so you can tell us of your encounter in the mountains, and all the heads of family can be here for the reading."
Out in the square, the villagers' voices were still quiet, but there was a lilt to them. A year with no reading was called a dark year. Behind Kunabei, someone was already making plans for a mid-day feast to celebrate the new priestess.
Rai-Kunabei nodded, feeling suddenly caught up safely in the traditions of her people. The year-reading--she still didn't feel ready. But she could hear support and welcome in the voices of everyone around her, and that steadied her as much as the warm smile of the Kuleilyi chief sitting in front of her and her grandfather sitting silently at her back.
This was the January 2011 Muse Fusion freebie.