A fox’s foreleg bones: humerus, ulna, and radius. Main use: attack. Also used for treating colds and headaches.
The two imperial men were walking in an alarmingly accurate direction.
“Let’s go,” Za said. With only a glance in the direction of her basket, safely hidden among rocks where no one could see it, she opened the fox-ear pouch she wore at her waist and pinched ground foreleg bones from one compartment. For fur-bright fire, she thought as she licked it from her fingers. She made saliva to swallow it down. For strength.
Her brothers did the same, and together—full of power, bursting with it like a rice-wine container over-full and leaking—they descended into the gully and chased the imperial men, with fire at their fingers.
The men had swords. Za and her brothers laughed and circled them, marking how their eyes went wide.
“You’re going to die,” Za said in the Nu language—the imperial language—and traced arcs of fire through the air with her fingers.
“So are you,” one of the men replied, “but only after giving the emperor all your silver, little animal.” He lunged at her, his sword swinging sudden as a midwinter wind.
He fell, covered in Za’s fire, and only screamed for a moment before it burnt away his throat.
The other man died under her brothers’ fire—but he reached for something in his bags and hurled it into the air before they finished killing him.
The siblings stood over the bodies, their power fading, and stared up as a white ball flew straight into the sky, far above the trees, and began to blaze like a small sun.
In the men’s bags, they found a map that marked a village high in the hills.
“It’s too close.” Tou moved his finger marginally along the hill-top to where their village truly lay.
“Look.” Za unfolded the map further, and with each piece of paper she exposed, she felt more and more sick. Villages dotted the high hills. “They’re all too close.”
From the mountains in the far north, where vast spirits kept the snow from ever melting, the green hills stretched out like numerous fingers towards the lowlands where the Nu lived. Only two hill-fingers away from theirs, a perfectly placed dot marked the village where Koua, Za’s closest childhood friend, had gone to be married. Imperial men had been there, almost two years earlier—forcing the people of the village to reveal the location of their silver mine, forcing them to work it until their bones filled the empty tunnels.
“Take the bodies to the river,” Za said. “Just in case that thing up there burns out before more of them can arrive. Then scout more, in case they weren’t the only group. I’m going to see if I can find out any good information.”
“How?” Tou asked, just curious—
—but Pao knew. “If you trust a word that comes out of that man’s mouth, you deserve to join these men in the river!”
“He hates them almost as much as we do!” Za snapped back, wanting their mother’s strength to smack him into silence.
“So he said! To win you over, to—”
“Enough,” Tou said. “They will come anyway. If Za can convince that man to tell us anything useful, she should try.”
“You’re an idiot,” Pao spat, but he didn’t stop Za as she ran back to her basket, where her infant son was bundled with the bamboo shoots she had been harvesting.
She began the long walk downhill to the trade town, hating Pao, hating the Nu, trying to ignore her son’s complaints at her long, jostling pace.
Fox-skull. Many purposes, including the acquisition of the fox’s ability to see at night and its strong senses of smell and hearing.
Za had hunted the fox when she was still weak and sore from childbirth, but no one else would do it for a half-Nu baby.
“Perhaps it’s for the best,” her mother had advised as the boy, small from his premature delivery, cried feebly beside Za. “He will only last a few days. And because of his size, he has not hurt you.”
As soon as night fell on the boy’s second day and everyone slept, Za wrapped herself in clothes and gathered what she needed: her bow and arrows, her fox-ear pouch, her mortar and pestle. She touched her baby once on the forehead, gently, so as not to wake him, and set out into the snow that coated the ground in a fine layer like cotton.
Her pouch still contained fox-skull.
It cast the forest in a pale grey glow. Za sniffed the wind. Foxes sometimes hid in winter, but they didn’t hibernate. They needed to hunt too.
Za tried to put aside her mother’s words. “It only works half the time, and who knows what his Nu blood will do? It probably won’t work at all. He’s small and sickly—let nature run its course.”
“I want to try,” she had said.
“Listen to wisdom for once in your life, child!” Temper had flared in her mother’s voice—the same anger that had made her strike Za to the floor when she revealed the pregnancy, although later she had apologised with grief in her eyes. “Your life will be normal again. Don’t you want that?”
In the snow, an hour’s hard hike from her village, Za crouched. Something rustled. She nocked an arrow and waited, still as a rock, until she saw what her nose had found: a male fox, searching for food. Za drew the bowstring back and released, and her arrow struck it in the rump, only wounding. It ran off—slowly, dripping blood, and even sore tired Za managed to follow it until she had a clear second shot.
She finished it with her knife and flayed it on the spot, rolled up the hide to carry home, and began stripping away the flesh. The hide would help to make her son’s first jacket, she decided, and the flesh would go into a stew for herself, to restore her energy and enrich her milk. But before all that, she needed the bones.
Out of respect for the fox, she ground its bones there, setting her mortar and pestle in the snow and forcing her cold fingers to co-operate. First she ground the tail-bones, murmuring the words her grandmother had taught her early in the pregnancy: For a strong heart. For strong lungs. For strong arms and legs. For strength. For strength. She poured the pale powder into a small pouch. Then she ground the other bones, separating them as use dictated, and picked up the hide and meat and set off home with steps full of fear: that the tail bones would not strengthen her son; or that they would, and her mother would hate her for it.
A fox’s hind-leg bones: femur, tibia and fibula. The speed that a sprinting fox longs for.
Further south, the hills were entirely cultivated, and the trade town sat among them like a curious outcrop of bare fat trees. Za followed a narrow path from an outlying village. On either side, terraces of rice and corn stretched up and down the hill: over a hundred large steps from the top of the hill to the valley, and again on the other side.
If she glanced north, the imperial men’s orb still shone in the sky.
With several weeks until the next trade day, the town’s streets were almost bare. Men and women worked in the surrounding fields while children helped or watched animals or played near their houses. A few people recognised her, with her half-Nu son; she hurried between the houses with their anger at her back.
She remembered liking this town.
At its far side, a house sat slightly apart from the others, identical in construction—walls of wood and a roof of dried banana leaves—but far smaller. Almost at its door she stopped, biting her fingers. She needed information. She didn’t want to talk about anything else—she wouldn’t let him. Fixing her village firmly in her mind—her grandparents, her parents, her littlest sister who liked to chase the chickens—she took one step forward, and another, and soon she stood outside the doorway, looking at the man bent over his paper with ink staining his fingers dark like indigo, as if she had never left.
Hello. I hate you. No I don’t. Why was I stupid in the fertile part of my cycle?
“Why are there imperial men in the northern hills?”
The brush in Truc’s hand clattered to the paper, ruining his words. “Za,” he said, then thought better of whatever he’d wanted to ask first. Silence grew awkwardly between them. Her son stood up in the basket, trying to pull himself up to see over her shoulder, and Truc’s agonised expression worsened. “He’s mine?” he asked softly.
Za glared at him. What other Nu man was I fucking? The father couldn’t be a Hma man—the differences between Hma and half-Nu babies were small, but they’d been pointed out enough that Za doubted anyone could miss them.
“Tell me about the imperial men,” she demanded.
“What imperial men? Um, do you want to come inside? I have some soup and tea and....” His words withered. “Come inside, at least, Za, and sit down.” Several stools sat by the wall, un-used. If Za’s shoulders had hurt less, if her feet hadn’t needed to carry her to the town so quickly, she might have refused him. Instead, she stepped inside and gently put the basket on the floor beside her and sat on one of the stools, longing for the silent emptiness of the forest.
Truc stayed at his table, stiff-shouldered, not quite watching her or her son.
“You must know about them,” Za said. “You’re still one of them—someone would have come to you. What did you tell them?”
Sighing, he said, “They came to me with a map and asked me to confirm its details.”
“A map.” From among bundles of uncooked rice and freshly cut bamboo shoots and some corn she had traded in the last village for extra shoots, she removed the map: wet on the edges, from rainfall and her son’s brief mouthy fascination, but unmistakable.
“Yes.” Truc looked directly at her. “That orb in the sky is theirs. I assume that when you took this map, one of them managed to set it off.”
“You told them where to go.” Deny it, she thought. Then, Tell the truth.
“No. I promise you, no. I told them nothing, even though they threatened me. I threatened back. They left. And now that orb is in the sky, confirming their suspicions.” He sounded genuinely unhappy.
“What are they doing?”
“Looking for silver, of course, but that is not all. What I managed to get their leader to say indicated tensions in the imperial court—they need an enemy to fight for a while, and your secretive, silver-rich people suit their needs perfectly.”
“Why? There’s so many people in their empire.”
“And they are busy fighting most of the others, too.” Truc smiled wryly. “This is why I left, remember.”
“I remember you saying that my people would be safe.”
His meagre humour faded. “I thought you would be. That map.... I don’t know where they got that information.”
“How do we stop them?”
“I don’t know.”
Two years ago, after the destruction of Koua’s new village, he hadn’t been able to answer. He had promised to think of ideas, to use his exiled life in ways that benefited the people of the hills—but Za’s mother had been right. None of his fine ideals made a difference.
“Are there more of them?” she asked, because nothing mattered except getting information.
“Yes. A small detachment—about one hundred, I believe. They are probably in the hills north of here already.”
One hundred imperial soldiers walking faster than she could, guided by the orb.
She stood up and took her son from the basket. “Good bye.”
“Za,” he said as she turned, and he filled her name with an intensity of emotion that surprised her.
“I need to tell my people,” she said without looking back. “I need to travel fast.”
Many more questions hung in the air between them. She answered just one.
“His name’s Cheu.” She didn’t tell Truc that sometimes, on days when she looked at her son’s face and saw every small way he differed from little Hma boys, she called him Fenh—a Nu name, one of Truc’s many.
Outside the town, she tied her son to her chest and swallowed ground hind-legs.
A fox’s tail vertebrae. Used to sustain life.
Za breathed a story onto the ground tail bones:
“Long ago, all our people were created in the mountains, by a great spirit who had already created many animals. When the time came for the spirit to make people, a different animal oversaw each of our births: foxes watched the first Hma man and woman be stitched from the air, ants watched the first Daren, snakes watched the first Pinoh, and so on.
“Many years later, the spirit grew weary of our company and sent us away, and we moved south into the hills where we settled comfortably and developed our own ways of life. Even we Hma are different. Some of us, whose clothes are bright as every flower combined, live in the same hills as many other people, and are probably the most numerous. Some of us, whose clothes are almost fully black and whose cheeks are tattooed with lines as thin as hairs, live in small numbers in hills far to the west. We, the only hill-people to live where snow sometimes falls, are scattered across many hills, always in the north, always hidden.”
She pressed more powder to the baby’s tongue.
I will make you fully Hma, she thought. I will fill you with our stories—then you’ll have to be Hma, and this will work, and you’ll live, and everyone will stop hating you.
Blinking away tears, she began another story.
A fox’s scapula. Pleasant when smoked with tobacco. Said to promote health in the elderly.
Za stopped at the last Hma village before hers, a place where two rivers crashed together and bamboo grew thick-stemmed on the shore. The white peaks of distant mountains hung in the northern sky like clouds. She put away her fox-speed at the village’s edge and appeared in front of an old woman who sat on a fence surrounding a small corn field.
“That’s a good trick!” the woman said, grinning toothlessly. “Although I don’t think your son likes it.”
He still wailed against her chest.
“He’s fine,” Za said. The sudden stop had jarred her. She blinked, expecting the village to blur like the road behind her. She kept herself still.
“Will you be staying long?”
“What do you want to discuss then, little mountain one?”
The noises of the village and the eternal river wrapped around each other in a distant knot. Here, with only her son’s quietening cries and the faint sucking of the old woman on her pipe, she didn’t feel like she stood in the village. She preferred being here. In the village they often derided her for sleeping with a Nu man, the girls with their Hma husbands and their first Hma children with perfect little Hma faces.
“Would you at least like a drink?”
“No.” Za felt stable enough to talk. “My village is in danger. I have to hurry to them.”
“The imperial men,” the old woman said unhappily.
“What do you know about them?”
“They have been in this area, hunting silver.” Anger simmered in her eyes, but sadness kept it from boiling. “We told them we don’t know the location of any mines. We trade the silver for our corn, for our little chickens that hatch as easily as the sun rises. So they stole as much of our silver as they could, and moved on.”
Za looked at the woman’s jacket, so brightly stitched that she hadn’t noticed how little silver adorned it—only two small discs, which would sit side-by-side if she fastened the jacket at her throat. And she wore just two narrow hoops of silver in her ears. Compared to her, Za felt like a silver mine. One thick band of stitched colour—red and white and yellow and black, and the russet of magic-rich fox fur—circled her indigo-dark jacket at her chest, and a row of silver discs ran above and below it. A similar design circled the end of both sleeves. Nothing decorated her dark trousers or boots, but thick bracelets clustered at her wrists and a large hoop hung from each ear. Even her son, whose jacket bore thick bands of fox fur for protection, owned more silver than the old woman.
Za’s village knew a good silver mine, as bounteous as the summer sun. A sick suspicion clenched in her.
“You told them,” she hissed.
“No.” The old woman spoke firmly. “We don’t know where you live, so how could we give them any details? They’re far away, we said. They come to us but we don’t go to them. And then, a month later, one of our men went hunting and never returned.”
Of all the people of the village, a hunter would best be able to guess the village’s location.
“We still don’t know where he is,” the old woman said. “Perhaps he lives, in one of the stolen mines. Perhaps his ghost wanders the mountains, lost.”
Za shivered. “They’re coming for us.”
“That light in the sky is theirs, isn’t it?”
Za realised she was holding onto her son, like a child with a new fur. You will be safe, she thought. At least, from the Nu. What would they do to a half-Nu child? Throw him into the forest with the other infants, too small to work in a mine, left to cry at pines and rocks for food? Keep him? Sneer at him, just like everyone else?
“He’s a handsome child,” the old woman said, smiling. “A year?”
“Almost.” Za swallowed. “Thank you.” She couldn’t remember when someone had last complimented her child. She stroked his hair absently. “I have to go.”
“Safe journeys, little mountain ones. I hope you impale many imperial soldiers on your claws.”
Za grinned. “Oh, we will.”
Some people stared as she jogged through the village, but the wind stole their words—she slid back into her fox-speed and ran with the forest blurring at her sides. She heard her son scream.
“Hush,” she said, gasping, jarring again from fast to slow. “Please. We need to hurry.”
The wails tore at her ears.
Za opened the pouch at her waist and frowned as, for the first time since the days after his birth, she fed him fox-bone. At two years, her grandmother had said. Wait two years. It is powerful and dangerous; wait, unless the baby’s life is in danger. Well, it most likely was. The Nu would laugh as they tore the silver from his jacket and threw him aside. Stupid to think otherwise.
His eyes went wide and he inhaled as if trying to breathe all of the journey ahead.
“All you have to do is stay still,” she told him, “and try to enjoy it.” She felt very strange, talking to him like this. “Can you do that?”
He wriggled and stared into the forest, so Za re-bound him to her chest, facing out, and hoped he didn’t get too many bugs in his eyes and mouth. Slitting her own eyes, she ran, and her son pealed with joy.
Fox hide. Use varies depending on how it is stitched.
Za sat nearly alone in her family’s house, winding a long braided strip of fox hide around her son’s head: one loop for every week he had lived so far and for every decade she hoped he would live. Ten weeks accumulated around his head, with its tufty dark hair. Soft as a fox cub’s, Za thought. Ten decades—though none lived that long. He watched her, with dark eyes in a face that seemed to get plumper every day, slowly gaining the fat he should have got in her womb.
“For sixty healthy years,” Za said, on the sixth loop.
No one joined them for this ritual, except for her littlest sister who sat just inside the doorway, crouched and wary. Misbehaving Bao, who ignored their mother’s order.
Za didn’t shoo her away.
“For seventy healthy years,” Za said, on the seventh loop.
Her son watched her with such contentment, such a simple kind of happiness: fed and warm and full of fox-strength, wrapped in it tight as the linens, woollen blankets and the fur stitched with every protective strengthening thread Za knew. As she began the eighth loop, he made little noises of pleasure.
Her hands and her mouth worked, put magic into him, but she turned her head away.
At Bao’s ten-week ritual, her extended family and almost everyone else from the village had crowded into their house or peered in from outside, through the door and windows. They had prepared a feast. They had sung and beat on the fox-hide drums brought out only for this day: small drums, with threads as white as snow and as grey as rocks criss-crossing the deep, rich russet of the fox. Ten weeks! They had hung ten amulets in the house, to keep the ten child-spirits sweet, and they had stamped ten times to send death away. Stay, ten-week baby! They had named her.
“For ninety healthy years,” Za said, unable to keep the tremor from her voice. She imagined her family gathered around her son, and tears rolled over her face like an icicle melting.
“For a hundred healthy years.”
She sewed the braid fast with sun-yellow thread, brought the thread round and round and round the join so that it bulged like a strange stone. She kept her hands steady, though her tears splashed on her son’s face.
Her son, who needed a name.
Possibilities tangled in her head: Hma names, good names, beautiful names, Nu names. Little half-Nu boy who no one but her—and Bao, who remained by the door, probably just curious about a part of her life she couldn’t remember—would acknowledge. Her mother wasn’t even speaking to her any more. A Nu name would suit him. Why couldn’t he look Hma? Why couldn’t the stories she’d poured into him with milk and powdered fox bone, a uniquely Hma magic—why couldn’t her milk, her fully Hma milk—why couldn’t all of it make him Hma and not Nu?
Za picked up her son, held him out—to the family that wasn’t there. Her hands shook. “Your name,” she managed, before sobs replaced the name she’d picked at random. She thought, wildly, I’ll drop him and he’ll die and my family will talk to me again.
“What’s his name?” a small voice said.
Old enough to want to be helpful, little Bao put her hands under Za’s son, steadying Za’s hands. Such a serious expression for a three-year-old’s face.
“Your name,” Za said softly, “is Cheu.”
“Cheu!” Bao said excitedly. It was a common name; Za suddenly remembered that a boy Bao’s age had that name. His parents wouldn’t like her for this. Za decided she didn’t care.
“Be strong, Cheu. Be brave, Cheu. Be loving, Cheu. Be healthy, Cheu.”
Bao echoed her words as closely as possible and kissed Cheu’s head afterwards.
He wouldn’t tolerate being held up for much longer; his face scrunched and he cried for milk. Za returned to the edge of the room, where her blankets and cushions made a far more comfortable place to nurse, and rearranged her jacket around him. It didn’t take long for Bao to grow bored of watching. The girl wandered away and Za was alone once again, with the fox hide around her son’s head scratching uncomfortably at her chest and only the drip-drip of her tears for company.
Fox teeth. For tearing enemies to pieces.
“We must move the village,” said Yi, the old woman who took charge in times of difficulty. She sat on a little wooden stool in the open space between houses, where early winter sun fell on the gathered villagers like an offering. Everyone stayed silent as she talked. “It was last done when my grandparents were children, also to escape the Nu. We must gather our possessions tonight and leave at first light tomorrow, and when the Nu soldiers arrive they will find only empty houses to burn to the ground. If they find our mines, they will have to work the silver themselves.”
Or have other Hma work them, Za thought. Or us, caught while we’re fleeing.
She bit her fingers, reluctant to speak out—to have the entire village stare at her, with her son fidgeting in her arms. But she couldn’t let them agree to this.
“Mother-Yi, may I talk?”
When everyone stared at her, she did her best to ignore them, focusing on old Yi with her smile empty of teeth.
“Of course, child. You have brought us such valuable information. Speak up!”
Murmurs spread. Not everyone agreed with Yi’s generosity. Za clutched her son tighter and spoke.
“They are only days behind us and I probably didn’t take their only map. They know where our village is. With a hundred of them, they’ll find it. And they’ll find our trail—not even we can hide the movement of a whole village. A stray heel-print here, a dropped thread there, and they’ll follow us into the mountains, and we’ll never be able to live in safety.
“But if we kill them all, or send them running, by the time they try to find us again, our tracks will have faded. Winter is coming, in only a month or two. Perhaps the snow will fall again.” And they would go into it, towards those higher reaches where people were no longer supposed to dwell, where mountains birthed icy winds and spirits slept. How far did they need to move to be safe forever? How far would the mountains let them?
“So keen to kill the people who are just like your baby’s father!” one of the men exclaimed.
Laughter fell around her like slung stones.
Since her son’s birth she had stayed away from the other people of the village, had split her time between household work and going far from the village on patrol. They laughed and she wanted to run back into the forest with her son, wanted to throw him aside and beg their forgiveness. Hated herself for both thoughts. Hated them.
Yi glared at the villagers and reached for her staff, no doubt to stamp it on the ground and demand their respect.
Someone mentioned trust and whether spreading her legs for a Nu man made her Nu too.
“Shut up!” Za screamed, and realised it had been Pao and that their mother had smacked him so hard he lay on the ground, moaning. “He’s not—” He was. Little half-Nu boy, ugly little boy, from loose-legged Za. She felt it all, rattling around in her skin like knuckle-bones in a cup. “He’s Hma!” she shouted, as Yi drew the conversation back to its main subject. Some people went quiet. “He’s Hma! He’s Hma and he’s mine and I’m Hma, I fed him fox-bone, I told him all our stories while he drank my milk, and if you don’t shut up you can drink my piss!”
Everyone stared at her in silence.
She shook, held Cheu to her chest, said, “Why don’t you ever shut up?” And for once, they did.
Her mother put a hand on her shoulder. “I think Za is right. If we all flee together, they will follow us. Some of us must defend the rest—but not by killing them. We cannot. Count every healthy adult in the village who possesses enough skill and power with the fox-bones to fight, and you will not find fifty, or forty, or even thirty. We could surprise them, and then they would recover, and kill us, as our finite power fades.
“However, there is something else we can do: destroy their supplies, and perhaps kill a few of them, to put the fright in them. Without their supplies they cannot follow us. It will be dangerous and difficult, and perhaps each soldier sleeps beside their food—” her voice faltered there, at the difficulty of their task “—but I think this is our best chance. And I will be honoured if Za is with us.”
Whatever Pao might have said next was silenced by Tou, who kicked him in the ribs.
As the village agreed with Za’s mother’s plan, Za wiped away tears with the fox-fur on her sleeve and returned to the ground, tucked away among other people.
Later, her mother murmured angrily, “You are Hma, even if your son isn’t, fully.”
Za stroked his hair.
The village split in two, its very walls taken apart—small parts bound to backs, transported ahead to be the first walls, shelter for the young, the elderly, the infirm. Its nearby stores were opened and emptied, sacks of rice put onto two wagons, sacks of dried corn added to the wagons where possible, added to baskets and hefted by all but the weakest of the group who departed. The two buffalo, used to plough the lower-altitude rice terraces at certain times of year, were brought from their pens and tied to the wagons, touched fondly by passing people. Be steady. Be strong. The further food stores, kept separate from the village for safety, were not touched. In safer times, people would return and find what remained. Children accepted bags of pots, herbs, any spare clothes. Adults hefted baskets full of not just food but fabric, medicines, silver. The graves of the dead were honoured one last time.
The group who departed began their journey throughout the morning: wagons and children and the elderly and infirm and adults who possessed little ability with the magic and some adults who did, protecting their mobile village.
Za watched Tou walk away with her son in a fabric-filled basket on his back. “Time to go,” her mother said.
With pouches full of fox-bone, they left the village behind.
The forest opened to them like a fox-ear pouch and they pierced their tongues with teeth. They swallowed foreleg bones and hind-leg bones and skull.
They spread out. The forest crunched under Za’s feet and she knew it crunched under twenty-one other pairs of feet, knew that her mother ran nearby, that Pao and Xi ran together, her with a tiny child curled in her womb like a fleck of dust. This fight would determine the new lives of many, and Xi did not consider her new life more important than those, though she hoped it would survive.
Za bared her teeth, thinking of the village’s future—and of her son, more distant with every step. She felt Tou, who had swallowed fox-skull to sense the forest around the fleeing villagers, holding him.
She knew when Xi killed a Nu scout, tearing his chest open before he even realised she stood in front of him. She knew when another scout fell, and another.
She knew when the first of their group found the army, camped on a flat place where, generations ago, their village had grown rice.
“There are small tents, for the soldiers,” her mother said, and everyone heard despite the distances between them, “and bigger tents. Perhaps they contain supplies. We must burn them—and burn the small tents too, if possible, in case they also contain supplies, and because the soldiers will not survive the high-hill nights without them if they still pursue us.”
At her wordless yell, they burst from the forest as one.
The first soldiers ran, terrified, and two of the larger tents shone in the night. But the soldiers regrouped, with weapons no one had anticipated. They gathered together to defend their remaining two large tents, holding swords like teeth, and threw gourds full of something that exploded and tore apart even fox-fast limbs. Za felt two deaths—brief agonies that left her gasping. Nearby, Xi screamed. Pao lay lifeless in his blood. The soldiers readied to throw more of their gourds, and Za dashed forwards, grabbed Xi, pulled her away to safety.
If only the fox-bones let them throw their fire like gourds, over the soldiers’ heads, onto the tents.
“We need to lure them away!” Za’s mother said.
Their group crouched among tents and the old ridges between rice paddies, holding themselves still, putting more fox-bone on their tongues. Xi’s tears dripped onto her fingers and she chased the smeared bone with her tongue. Za hurt, too—she hadn’t wanted Pao to die, hadn’t wanted to see a former friend torn open. “We’ll get them,” Za whispered—to Xi, to all of their group. Movement. “Look. Those men by their tent.” Not all of the soldiers were in big, safe groups after all. Za and Xi ran forward, pounced on three men, killing one of them—and dragged the other two away, towards the forest, and others ran out of cover to circle them, tracing fire-shapes in the air as if they planned to torture the screaming men all together.
Several soldiers broke away from the two groups. Shouts told them not to, but they ran forwards and they were captured too, or killed. Even more followed.
Za felt her mother and six others emerge from hiding, and in the fear and frenzy they reached the tents, and the fires began to warm the night. The soldiers scattered, afraid again, and the Hma ran through the camp, laughing, igniting the smaller tents. “Run south!” Za yelled at the soldiers who fled her fire. “Run south!” And give us enough time to escape!
Za knew that scream. It was as if Tou stood beside her, as if he had come down from the fleeing village, but—
They slowed, they looked up into the hills, as if they could see clearly the ambush falling on their moving village.
A fox’s heels. Mixed with certain herbs, an abortifacient.
Throughout the pregnancy, Za knew where to find the necessary herbs: carefully dried, hanging from the ceiling. They wafted in the breezes that drifted through the house, as if beckoning her. Once, she tore off enough leaves and held them over a pot of boiling water, and imagined how easily the barely developed baby would leave her body. No half-Nu child.
When only she knew about the pregnancy, she had found happiness in the thought of a child, though it hadn’t come according to her plans. But neither had Koua’s death; neither had meeting Truc. She had accepted it. Then—shouting, fists, silence.
She didn’t know what to do. She dropped the herbs to the floor.
She didn’t decide and then it was too late, and her son came out of her, bringing with him a knifing hurt at the way his eyes folded more like a Nu than a Hma, the months of silence from her mother, the looks and the comments from her village all the way down to the trading town, from people who had always smiled at her.
A fox’s pelvis. Used in several healing remedies.
Yi led the defence: burning bright with her fire, tearing away pieces of wall-wood and hurling them in flames at the soldiers. Others—old, young—clustered around her and in smaller groups, protecting anyone unable to fight.
Bodies lay along the ground like rocks.
Za’s mother directed the returning group: encircle the attackers, kill as quickly as possible. “Do not look down. Later we will mourn the dead.”
They all looked.
Two little girls lay on the ground. Not Bao. Za blinked away tears at the sight of such young deaths—and there were babies, too. But though she ran faster than storm-winds and left soldiers clutching their burnt throats behind her, she couldn’t find Tou or Cheu.
Her father and grandparents stood with Yi, and Bao hid at their feet. Za circled around them, fending off soldiers, who scattered, finally outnumbered.
As her fox-bone ran out, as her senses and speed and fire-hot fingers returned to normal, the cold night fell on Za and she collapsed. “Cheu,” she gasped. Around her, the village rearranged itself for the next few hours: healing those who could be saved, honouring those who could not.
Za’s father brought a bowl of hot stew made with ground pelvis and helped her drink.
“Tou felt Pao die,” he said, “and then they attacked us. He ran after some soldiers, away into the forest, and he hasn’t come back.”
Her father stroked her hair. “He was with Tou.”
Though every part of her body protested, stiff and sore, Za got to her feet.
“You need to rest, Za.”
The forest kept its secret for so long that she stopped crying. She forced one foot in front of the other, knowing that eventually she would find their bodies, and bury them, and move on into the mountains with the rest of her village. Branches scratched her face. The cold ached in her fingers. Battle-wounds worsened; she limped, but she could still walk. The moon gave her poor light to see with. High above, the orb had finally dimmed, and the other soldiers hadn’t carried a replacement—or it had been destroyed. Za managed to smile. Maybe the village had enough time now.
She looked to one side, at a dark shadow: a cave.
In it, still-breathing Tou curled unconscious around the basket. Cheu cried hungrily.
“Oh.” Za sank to the ground, to pull him from the bundled cloths and silver and hold him close.
As the village moved into the whitening mountains, Za felt as though someone looked at her and Cheu with mistrust as often as snowflakes fell around them. She carried a basket as heavy as anyone else’s, she cried together with Xi at the memory of Pao’s death, she hunted and cooked and sat with everyone else, turning hides into mountain clothes—yet the looks didn’t stop.
Most of the time she walked with her mother, who out-glared them all, and stayed utterly silent.
Cheu babbled sometimes, apparently fascinated by the cold, exhausting, hungry process of fleeing. Wrapped in hide and spare fabric, nestled in a child’s basket padded with pine needles for extra warmth, fed as much meat as she could spare, he didn’t feel any of it. Za made sure of it.
No soldiers had attacked; with a week between the village and the ambush, many began hoping for safety. Many began to talk more decisively of where to build their new village. They needed to survive the winter, but then their lives could begin anew.
In a few months, Cheu’s noises would be words. Mama. Papa? Za wrapped her arms around his basket, torn between shushing him—how they looked at her whenever he babbled, how they looked at him—and letting him practise his infant-babble.
He deserved better. And not just, Za thought, from the village. From her. That old woman had called him handsome. A handful of people looked at him differently. Limping Tou ruffled his short hair. Xi gave him pine cones to play with, snapping off some of the scales to make them look like people. Za’s mother started smiling at him in the evenings, when he pottered around their fire pointing at sparks. Za’s grandmother winked at him as she carried her remaining chickens.
One night, Za couldn’t sleep for crying, so angry at herself.
The next morning, as she heaped snow over the ashes of their fire and hoisted her baskets onto her back and front, she began to sing to him. People glared at her. She flushed and fell silent. But as the village began to walk, they looked away; quietly, so that only Cheu could hear, she gathered up her courage and sang,
“I ground the fox-bones
I hand-stitched the jacket
I walked into the mountains