Her father, when Johnna saw him once a year, was more honest. “Pfft. Accident,” he said. “The caravan leader had a fetching daughter, and I had a terminal problem keeping up my drawers.”
Johnna grew up among her mother’s folk, nomadic traders who settled into their mountain valley only in hard winter. Manda polished and mounted gems in cunning settings. She twisted necklaces , bracelets, and rings into life. Johnna took the name Cooper from her stepfather. He soaked wood and banded it into casks. All winter long, his shop was alive with the sounds of hammering, and summers, he set up with the blacksmith in his travelling forge to keep working.
Johnna herself was apprenticed to the bowwright, and she had nimble fingers and patient hands. She chose feathers and wood all summer long as they traveled. Then, she sat with Darric in his wagon in summer and in his shop in the cold months, and he guided her hands as she smoothed the wood to a shine and notched it for stringing . “Every tree has a curve, no matter how slight,” Darric said. “Pay attention to that as you work; make the bow conform to that natural shape.” She used the feathers to fletch arrows, where she also mounted the sharp little tips she whittled down from flint or obsidian.
Increasingly, Johnna’s next oldest sister minded their brothers so their parents could sell the family’s goods. Johnna often went with Darric now. They were watched closely, the sandy haired bachelor and his young apprentice. And they were careful, never alone long, because tongues wagged in their tribe. It wasn’t something they spoke of, but in the summer, if Darric went into the wagon for something, Johnna made a point to sit up front. Or if she needed something in back, he took the reins or tended to the horses in some other way, so that everyone could see they were not alone in the dark. Winters, they sat in his shop, perched on stools, the door open to outside, even though it was cold.
Johnna slighted her friends to hone the craft she loved. It wasn’t just making the bows and arrows, but testing them. Darric taught her how to hunt and shoot true, so she could know her own work’s quality. Then too, she earned a little money, because Darric put her pieces alongside his in every town, only telling which had been made by the prentice when pressed. She kept this cash secreted with her stepfather’s barrels. Her peers might overlook her darker skin and hair and her purple tinted eyes, but none of them had the skill to earn money from their prenticeships yet. They would say Darric favored her, perhaps even that he was courting her, if they knew he gave her money of her own.
She was just now fifteen, the age her mother had been at her own birth. Young by her people’s standards standards. Still, one of her friends was already betrothed. Sari meant to marry outside the tribe. Her vocation ran more towards growing things, skills that made her ill suited for a nomadic life. She was engaged to a farmer near Derrydown, and if they still liked each other when they met again next summer, her parents would let the wedding go forward. Johnna did not want a husband yet. She was friendly with a number of boys, and she supposed she would go with one of them when the time came.
Then came her father’s letter, sent with a straggler who had to stop and replace a wheel and barely crossed the passes before the mountain snows isolated the village for winter. “My wife died,” her father wrote. She had been heavy with their third when the caravan passed through Auricstead the previous fall, and Johnna could guess how she passed.
The letter went on, “I have a wet nurse for the babe, and I can manage for the winter. But come Spring, I must built up my hut again and add a new room to take a new wife in the fall. I would pay a good wage if you came and watched your sisters until late summer.”
Johnna’s mother laughed when she saw the note. “He was always so direct,” she said.
“He doesn’t make it sound very appealing,” Johnna said.
“He doesn’t at that,” Manda agreed.
“He says he doesn’t want the appearance of an affair,” Johnna told Manda, quoting the letter. “It’s one thing to have loose drawers when you’re a young man, but a widower best be clear he isn’t buttering both sides of his bread.”
Johnna’s mother laughed again. “So direct,” she repeated. “But think about it,” she went on. “There are grandmothers he can hire among the Auric if that’s his reason. It’s a side way in for you he’s offering, if you want to take it.”
“And if I don’t?”
Johnna’s mother shrugged, smiled. “Then you don’t,” she said.
Later, sitting with Darric, both of them sanding bows, Johnna said, “My father wants me to sit with my sisters for two seasons.”
“Oh?” Johnna no more discussed her parentage with Darric than she did the reasons they must always leave the door open when someone wasn’t in the shop.
“His wife died,” she went on. “Mother says he’s giving me a chance to be an Auric.”
“And do you want that?” Darric set aside his bow and watched her.
Since he had set his work down, Johnna did the same, but that left her nothing to do with her suddenly anxious hands. “No,” she said, gripping the edges of the stool. “But I do want…” it was hard to put into words what she wanted.
“You want them to acknowledge you,” said Darric. “You want them to stop looking around you and pretending you are purely the Cooper’s daughter from the Arom tribe.”
“Yes. That’s exactly what I want.”
Darric picked up his work once more, allowing Johnna to do the same. He sanded awhile, smooth long strokes that Johnna tried to imitate on her own bow. After a time, Darric said, “You would rejoin us when the caravan came through in fall?”
“Of course. I hadn’t thought of actually going,” Johnna told him. “I don’t like to lose two seasons learning.”
Darric smiled. “You wouldn’t lose a thing if you kept working. And you would have time to gather a fair amount of wood in two seasons.” He didn’t have to tell her that some of the most expensive bows he sold were teak or that the time the Arom spent in the southern woodlands was too short for his liking. But the caravan had to hurry by then, to get back to the northern mountains before the heavy snows and ice came.
Johnna thought of the Auric forests, where Darric had traded some sixteen of his best bows last year for enough wood to make just five more. He expected to sell those for more than every other bow now in the shop, and Johnna was to craft one of them.
“You think they would let me take their wood?”
“I think if we finish three of those,” he pointed to the unstarted wood standing in a corner of the shop, “and you take them with you, they will buy them for a cost and be willing to open their forest to us both. They will see the value to themselves in what we sell.”
Johnna put down her work again, this time to cross to the corner where the teak waited. She ran her fingers lightly over her piece. “That would be something,” she said. It wasn’t just that Auric teak was a strong hardwood. It was infused with Auric magic simply from growing where they lived, and sanded and fitted right, those bows shot truer than any in the world. “That would be something,” Johnna repeated.
“Your father would teach you a little of their skill,” Darric went on. “Think about the weapons you could make. There hasn’t been a hunter mage since before my father’s time.”
Johnna looked up sharply. “But Darric,” she said, “I don’t fly! The Auric mages all fly.”
“Yes you do!” he countered. “Or you did anyway. When you were a babe in arms your mother and grandmother tied a little string to your ankle and towed you behind them like a kite.”
“How would I fly, Darric? I don’t have wings!”
“Well I don’t know where they went, but you used to. I wasn’t quite an apprentice myself, but I remember the arrows my father fletched with your feathers were said to never miss their mark.”
Johnna stared at Darric, her mouth slightly open, her hands dangling limp at her side. Then she reached behind herself and patted across her shoulder blades, as if she expected wings to have sprouted out of her shirt while they were talking. Forgetting her coat on its nail by the hearth, she turned and walked out of the shop.
In the street, she ran all the way home and burst in on Manda setting a piercing green emerald in a delicate lady’s ring. Normally, she would never have disturbed her mother at work, but now, she no more saw the ring than she did the wood left behind in Darric’s shop.
“Johnna, what happened, child?” Manda exclaimed.
“Darric says I used to fly!”
“Well yes, “ her mother said. “Your feathers stopped growing in when you started walking. But your father told me they would come back if you ever wanted them.”
“Well why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“You never seemed very interested in your father’s people.”
“I guess I wasn’t until now,” said Johnna. She sat down on the hearth and watched Manda.
Manda went back to the gem. “You’ve met your baby sisters,” she said. “They could do with a bit of family right now, and you have a good hand with the littles.”
“I suppose so.” Johnna ran her hand across her shoulders again. Her whole back had started itching when Darric first told her she used to fly. “But I’m not Auric!” she burst out.
Now Manda laughed out loud. “Of course you are,” she said. “You’re as Auric as you are Arom, dear.”
“I mean I couldn’t stay with them. What if I got there and they tried to keep me?”
“Their trouble with the ruling council has always been they keep people out, not that they force them in.”
“And father says,” again the hand across her own shoulders, “that if I want to fly, my feathers will come back?”
“Yes. The flight isn’t something external. It’s stored within your body. Find a way to work it out.”
Johnna thought her body was working those feathers out all on its own from just that brush of thought. She felt needles of pain all down her spine, and it was all she could do to keep from tearing her shirt off and running bare-chested into the winter air to cool the stinging.
It was that pain far more than her mother’s words that made her believe Darric. She would not lose ground in two seasons with the Auric. Instead, she would gather wood and knowledge. She would learn to train her bows with foresight, so a hunter might see, an instant before releasing the string, if the shot would fly true or if it should be held back, the arrow unwasted.
Now her back felt like live embers had sparked onto it from the fire behind her. She lurched to her feet and then she did struggle out of her shirt. It was growing too tight, and she thought the wings would shred it. Manda looked up again from the gem, then set it swiftly aside to help her daughter. Johnna collapsed against her mother, who swayed, but held her upright as blood spilled down the girl’s sides and her back and shoulders erupted into a riot of brightly colored feathers.
After a few minutes, her mother asked “Are you all right?”
Johnna made a little sound then said, “Tender.”
“I should say.” Manda lowered Johnna to her knees. “I’m going to get a robe for you to put on backwards, then I’ll take you down to the springs. We can stop at the apothecary for numbing powder.”
Johnna sank down to rest on her arms, which quaked. She felt top heavy and off kilter. She thought then that she would go to the Auric, to care for her sisters and to learn what to do with herself. She would not stay more than the two seasons, and even that would be hard for someone so used to travel.
She held in her mind the fixed image of that teak wood sitting in Darric’s shop. She felt as though she held it already, smoothing, polishing, and notching the wood. This she would take, along with Darric’s two finished bows, to sell to her father’s tribe. But the next one she made, she meant to keep for herself, to learn to hunt in a whole new way. She barely minded that she would miss Sari’s wedding. She had larger things to do in her fifteenth summer, and in spite of her weakness and her pain, she found herself smiling when Manda came back into the room.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.