The One Who Sees
Copyright 2011 Jodi Ralston
Short Blurb: After nearly drowning in a magic lake, young Osan can see the souls dwelling inside people, and he discovers they are in the wrong bodies and have been so since birth. Mythic Fantasy Novelette, 18,000 words approx.
Rood's tent looked larger than Tomar's, and it had more designs of power and rule--designs fresh as blood. That made Osan think of Tomar's soul and Tomar's dead body and of Tomar's soul in Rood's body. And that made Osan wonder whose soul would feed the Soul Eaters for this family-killing? Rood's, wherever it was? Or Tomar's? Then it was easier to not think on that at all.
Osan stepped inside Rood's tent, clenching Oki's blanket, and he saw something that stood out amongst Rood's possessions of hanging flutes, smoke pipes, feathers, antlers, and beads. He saw a great, spotted shell hanging from the ribs of a tent; inside it something moved and glowed.
Not decoration: Lakeface.
A bodiless soul.
It quivered; it couldn't do much else in the cup of the shell. Help me, it said, sounding male, sounding Enemy, but it looked like a glowing soul, looked like a brother. I don't know where I am.
Osan reached for it, touching the water. "Brother," he whispered.
I hear you! The Lakeface bobbed. I can see . . . something. Help me! Everything is so dim and quiet here.
"Shaman?" Rood spoke from behind, making Osan's fingers skip across the water like stones. The Lakeface--the soul--the impossible brother--quivered.
"Oh, yes," Rood said, moving to the other side of the shell. "My booty."
Booty. "No, it--you have to--" Osan gripped the sides of the shell, then softened his grip when he spilled a drop. "This is my brother."
Rood rubbed his chin hairs.
Rood scratched his belly hair, which was curled, with some grey, and all sweat-slick.
Finally, Rood said, "I do not understand, Shaman."
"This." His grip shook the shell. "This!" More water spilled. His brother cried out, so he stopped. "This."
"Ah, yes, the son of the Enemy's chief." Rood smiled and flicked the water with his fingertips.
The soul shrank down, quieting, as if he were a catfish hiding in mud.
There was no mud. No hiding.
"We will hold it ransom, but Sha--Eldest Shaman assured us they will not submit. So we will have our warriors ready on the day they send a boy to piss on our demands." Rood's eyes grew vague, as if staring far off onto much larger things than in this tent. "We will be ready; they will not. We will win."
Then Rood shook his head and saw Osan again. "But that is later talk. First talk--"
Rood did not see.
"No! You can't!" Osan stared at the shell, the quiet shell. "This is my . . . brother."
That lifted Osan's gaze.
"It is good to see a shaman with humor. Enemies being family?" Rood laughed again, slapping his naked thigh. "That is a good one."
Osan did not know what to do, to say. Rood was blind--like Osan was once. Blinder.
Once Rood's humor settled, he gestured for Osan to move to the rugs and blankets on the tent floor. "Now, sit, Shaman. Time for serious matters."
Slowly, Osan did. What else could he do?
Rood joined him. "This is about Oki."
"Oki?" Osan straightened. "My sister is in trouble?"
Now who was blind? But Osan did see, slowly: Rood thought him a shaman--Young Shaman--and shamanhood cut family ties like cutting a twig from the willow tree and planting it elsewhere. Alone. Only in the days of First Brother did anyone think the new willow that grew was family to the old. Now, no one did. Except, perhaps, the willow twig. But no one asked it.
"Let me begin again," Rood said, sweating a lot, scratching a little. He puffed up. "I want to make Oki my wife."
Those words would need time to make sense, so Osan looked about him, found his blanket on the floor, and pulled it close. But still, his thoughts were slow: Oki was a child.
She wasn't, not anymore. But compared to Rood, she was. She was younger than Sua.
Rood waited. You didn't keep chiefs waiting any more than you kept shamans. Osan smoothed the blanket on his lap, found it a little damp, and thought of a way out of this new responsibility thrust on him, "You are married, Chief Rood."
Here, Rood's puffiness and posture fell. He looked his age as he rubbed his face. "Sawa is . . . with the ancestors. While you were . . . being reborn, she died in childbirth."
Osan looked at him, focusing on the saddest face: Rood's. "I am sorry."
Rood looked at him as if he was the one with two faces. Then, after several breaths' time, Rood looked away. "I need a new wife, young and strong enough to bring me sons. Oki is what I need."
"No-I . . . I cannot speak to her on this. I . . . can't."
Rood waved him off. "Ot is young; he will agree."
Then, understanding came a little quicker, yes. When he was in the Lake, while he was . . . dead . . . or not alive . . . responsibility over his sisters had left him. It had to fall elsewhere: onto his cousin, it seemed, since, despite what the large, spotted shell showed, he had no brother here, only uncles and cousins.
He should have felt relief. This was what he wanted, wasn't it? Oki to be safe with a better brother? Where, then, was his light feeling? Why did his stomach sour and rumble? He had wanted this.
Then he looked at Rood and what Rood wanted.
He didn't want that.
"Oki will not agree," Osan said.
Rood nodded. "Which is why I need you, Young Shaman. Make me a charm, turn her eye on me as Sua's--" Here, Rood chuckled and bulged his own eyes. "--has turned on you."
And here, Osan felt sick. She's my sister.
Rood scratched his belly again. "Now, Shaman, about Oki-"
No, not Oki. "Have you asked Eldest Shaman?"
Rood slammed his fists onto his knees, making Osan start. "No. No, he says that is beneath him now--too busy catching souls to work simple magics. Was that beneath him when he turned Sua to him?" Rood shook his head, jaw as clenched as his fists. "I will be glad when he is gone."
"Yes, we can't have two Shamans. He offered to be Shaman in the land we take from Enemy. A new village, but still my village."
Osan knew what would happen then from stories, from bubbles in the Lake: death. Mostly Enemy's. A new village would spring up, planted with mostly Enemy's own people: a new twig planted in a field of blood. A strong shaman would be needed to tend things, to remove the angry souls of the dead, to weed out their revenge and that of the living slaves. But what could Shaman do for the souls killed by their own family in this war, killers and killed unknowing?
Nothing. Shaman would do nothing.
A bubble of noise popped from the shell, a reminder: he had tried, failed. Rood had looked into the shell, blindly, and saw something to hate blindly. Osan had looked and saw something more.
Something . . .
. . . something he must take. If he could not cure the blind, at least he could remove family from the arrow's path. Without this hostage, there would be no war. At least not for a while, giving people time to see.
He could do this.
But he needed to be cautious. He looked at Rood. "When will the warriors be ready to move? When will you send the ransom demand?"
Rood frowned. "On the third day of preparations."
"That day is?"
"Today is the second."
So, tonight. He would have to do it tonight. He looked toward the shell and the soul hiding in the quiet, the soul waiting, his brother waiting. He nodded to it and spoke to it, "I will help you."
And his brother heard: Thank you! More noise bubbled up. Thank you!
He had to repeat his words to Rood, to make the come out in their own tongue, so Rood could understand.
"When?" Rood said, rubbing low on his belly. He did not talk of war here, but Oki.
But Rood would have neither. Without a charm, Oki would never agree, and no matter how Ot screamed, their cousin could never make her.
Osan rubbed his chin and pretended to contemplate things far and wise and magical. All lies. Finally he nodded at his side, as if to consult a spirit guide. Another lie. "When Rose Moon is in the sky. It is a woman's moon, after all."
Rood's hands and face fell. "That is five nights away!"
Osan rose, gripping his blanket. "I know."
Though Rood gave him clothes and things for his tent, Osan did not raise one, nor did he dress. Instead he washed the mud off his cool-weather leggings, loincloth, and top as he waited until the time was right, waited for darkness to cover his tracks, for Rood to raise loud revelry with his warriors. They would stay that way well until high-sun; no one would notice his absence until then.
Or the soul's.
Osan sneaked into Rood's tent, took down the shell, and draped Oki's blanket over it. People would see only blanket, not booty, see only his possession, not thievery.
He left the tent.
He left the village.
Only then did his brother speak, Is that you?
"Yes," he told him. "You are safe with me, brother."
Brother? it whispered. There was a faint slosh. You called me that before.
"That is because you are. The brother of my soul. Olas."
He had never considered that Olas would not know him. Never considered Olas would not accept. . . . For all of his misgivings . . . Osan bit his lip. His feet slowed over the ground. All of his previous misgivings on his brother's nature did not matter now, only an answer.
And at last it came:
I never had a brother . . . before.
Osan spoke the truth the best he could, about souls and bodies not always being the same. "You are my only brother, too," he said at the end. "Of sisters I have . . ." Pain stilled his lips. He could only hope their souls, too, lived elsewhere, awaiting him. A good hope, that, but it hurt even as it warmed. At least the hope carried him atop a hill. There, he stopped. He could see the entire village; it was lit by camp fires, so many he couldn't see any just one.
A bubble of noise. I don't understand.
Osan did not let spirits dim. He spoke softly, though he could not smile. "That's all right; I don't either. But we can learn it together." Osan tightened his grip on the shell and moved on, further away from the village and safe things, further away from where he had first heard Olas and first knew the truth. He moved nearer the unknown. He spoke to fill the silence, to make some things a little more known. "I am Osan of the People of First Sister. Who are you that you remember?" Can you remember any of us?
For many steps, for another hill, there were sweet-smelling trees and then sweet-smelling flowers, but no answer. Osan thought his brother slept . . . or smothered. Osan squatted quickly and set the shell on the ground, ready to yank off the blanket.
The whisper came, stilling his hand: My name is Lone River.
The Enemy name, then, was all he knew--but one day could Olas remember more?
Where do you take me, Osan?
Osan listened to the question he could but couldn't answer. He knew where he'd started out for, the Land of Lone River, but where would they end?
So Osan listened to the way at hand, to the soft sounds of his brother's prison, and tried to hear something else, the sound of his brother's heart, the one that whispered Olas.
When he couldn't hear it, Osan listened to the way he had come. To the revel. . . .
He could not hear that from here, either. He looked for his village. There was only wind and crickets behind him. There was only darkness to see there. His stomach started hurting. Don't look back, people had said. In stories of warriors tested by spirits and shamans, those who looked back were cowards--they were the ones who not only lost the test but grew lost themselves. But what if the way forward was too strange? What if no way was familiar? When you had no guide, no test, only your own self and decisions, where do you look then?
He looked up. He looked to the stars. So many. So vast. Like souls in the Lake, greater than everything. Where do you look when you know the path you walk could take you further away from your family than ever before? Than all of your family.
Sister to never see again.
Brother he might have gained to lose.
Osan . . . are you there?
The stars could not guide him this time, but they could teach him. Be steadfast as us, he believed they said in a voice of many. Stars might journey but they always returned. Be steadfast. Your brother will learn and so will his people. You did not save him to lose him, to lose them all.
So, Osan picked up the covered shell. "Brother, I take you home."