Sneak Preview: War’s Little Brother (2)

“If you say so,” Taylor said said. She finished her sandwich and put her apple in her purse. Ayoka took up her leather pouch. The two girls weaved up the side of the embankment and off to a wooden structure, a dressing room where athletes prepared for competition.

Ayoka looked around the milling crowd. She leaned in and whispered, “You need to wait behind the dressing room.”

“No problem, I’ll just—“

“No,” Ayoka said. “I mean way on the far side. There’s a tree around back.”

There were trees all over the place.

“Uh, fine,” Taylor said. “I’ll just…wait behind the dressingroom, then.”

It didn’t surprise Taylor that there were plenty of trees

behind the dressing room. Even Topside, this part of the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds was near a wooded marsh.

What did surprise her was when she heard someone call her name. There wasn’t another person in sight.

“Who’s there?” she said.

“Taylor! Up!” the voice said again. This time she realized it wasn’t a human voice. It was more like the squawk of a parrot or—“A crow?” she said out loud as she scanned the nearest tree. A large black bird sat perched in a branch eight or nine feet up. “Raven,” the bird croaked. It fluttered to a lower branch so it could speak to Taylor face to face. “I’m only…borrowing.” The bird, it seemed, could only speak in brief phrases of two or three words at a time. Taylor was astounded it could communicate at all. But what was it talking about?

“B-borrowing? What—?”

“Couldn’t come…in person… My parents…still looking.”

Parents?

“It’s me, Taylor…Shanna.” The raven snapped at a passing bug and swallowed it whole.

Taylor furrowed her brow. “This is some kind of…”

“Trick?” the raven said. “Of course! We say, ‘faring forth.’” “Faring forth,” Taylor repeated.

“I’m still…in Tsuwatelda,” the raven said. “But my consciousness…is here.”

Taylor just stood there, nonplussed.

“You look good…. That color…suits you.” There was something sad in the raven’s croaky voice, and also something familiar.

“You’re really Shanna?”

“It’s me, Neunhirri.”

Taylor looked at the raven wide-eyed. The first time she met Shanna, she had told her that her true name, the name that powered her magic, was Neunhirri. It was a secret only she and her birth mother shared.

“I wanted to come…. Chief Tewa said…too dangerous.”

“So you…uh…fared forth?”

“Exactly.”

Taylor stood there, mystified.

“How are your parents…dealing with…everything?”

She lowered her head. “Actually, I’m still not sure how to tell them.”

“Taylor!” the raven scolded. “Over a month…. They deserve… to know!”

“Sure,” she said. “It’s just…. It’s a lot to take in, you know?”

“Tell them,” the raven squawked. “They can handle…better than…you think…. They love you.”

There was a long silence as Taylor considered what her mom—or the raven, or whatever—had to say.

“Listen,” the raven said, “I’m losing…my connection…. Have to go.”

“C-can you come again later?”

“Might not find…an animal…that can talk,” the raven said.

“Oh.”

“Use your seeing stone!”

“I will.”

“And learn…language of birds…. Very handy.”

“How do I do that?” Taylor asked.

The raven gave a deep, throaty rattle. Shanna was gone. A second later, so was the raven.

When Ayoka re-emerged from the dressing room, she barely looked like herself. She wore a black, fringed skirt and a match- ing halter-top. Around her waist was a wide leather belt with elaborate loops along the edges, top and bottom. Fastened to the front was an animal pelt, turned so the skin part—dyed blood-red—faced outward.

On top of everything else, she was covered in war paint—her face, her stomach, her arms, and her legs all the way down to her bare feet were decked out in black and white stripes and whorls. Taylor realized Ayoka was wearing a feminine version of the same kind of outfits the stickball players had been wear- ing earlier. In fact, she clutched a pair of sticks in her hand that rested easily against her bare shoulder.

“Ayoka, Shan—”

“We’ll talk later,” Ayoka said with a wink, and then whispered “Too many ears around here.”

Taylor smiled. She guessed Ayoka knew Shanna had hatched a plan to talk with her, but now she knew it for sure.

“Ready?” Ayoka said. Before Taylor could answer, the nunnehi girl strode forward. A line of competitors was forming several yards away. Most looked like teenagers. Older-looking players kept their distance but nodded encouragement to their younger teammates. Among these younger players, some like Ayoka had well-wishers tagging along, older men for the most part, but a few proud mothers were also in the group as well as several other kids Taylor’s age there to support their friends.

Taylor followed as Ayoka took her place in line. When she reached the front, she held her sticks over a great stone bowl while an older fae poured water over them from a smaller ceramic cup.

As with the previous game, the Ichisi players wore red and the Tsuwatelda black. Both teams huddled around their coach, who gave them a pre-game pep talk that lasted for several min- utes. Then everyone raised their sticks in the middle of the circle and joined in a thunderous war whoop.

At last, Ayoka motioned for Taylor to rejoin her.

Taylor followed the other supporters back to the playing field, but now she was given a seat much closer to the action, almost on the field itself. The other supporters of the younger Tsuwatelda players found their seats around her.

The musicians were still playing and singing, and by now the whole arena was filled with the haunting sounds of the music. A drumbeat rose to a crescendo as the players marched onto the field. It was another half-hour, however, before anybody even tried to settle down and start the game. The music continued to pulse through the arena like a living thing.

Taylor felt herself swaying to the music along with everyone around her. Jets of faery fire streamed across the noonday sky, a confusion of red and green and blue and gold. A thousand spectators seemed to become a single organism, wrapped up in the spectacle.

Only the guy in the “Wild Hunt” tee shirt seemed unfazed. He sat cross-legged on his blanket apparently unmoved. For a split second, he and Taylor made eye contact, but he immediately looked away.

There was something familiar about him; Taylor couldn’t decide what.

Read more of The Devil’s Due

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