whine pierced the air. All activity paused: the scrape of blade on hide, the
grind of mortar against rough grain, the drag of kiji fronds across the sand.
Even the yellow grass on the plains seemed to cease swaying in the dry breeze
jerking squeals that came from the sphere beyond the village perimeter cried in
a voice louder than a thousand children's screams, made demands in a language
no living person spoke. People dropped tools and abandoned chores. They ran to
the sunset side of the grasslands. Dev ran with them.
Hunger, the elders had divined, when the
sphere first called out generations ago. Hunger they said each time
after that first; proven right because their sacrifices quieted it for years at
a time and the village remained safe despite the vast array of dangers
crowd gathering around the sphere, Dev pushed forward and stood where not even
the elders dared. Her bare toes hung at the edge of the hole, her sleeveless,
tan robe flapped in the cool air drifting up from the depths.
The hole was
nearly three times as wide as she was tall. The sphere floated in the center
near the top, seemingly weightless, though large enough that she couldn’t have
encircled it within her arms. The shiny tiles of its blue and gold skin glinted
in the sun. She resisted covering her ears against the deafening wail. A moment
later it shifted to a new rhythm. Grinding squeal, quiet hum.
followed the circular wall at her feet into the bottomless shadows far below.
Navel of the Earth, the elders called it, the largest and most unfathomable of
the relics from an ancient world that had left them so many deadly mysteries.
She looked up as her fellow nameless—Opa, Kaz and Jaye—pushed through the press
of people and stood also at the rim of the hole.
ceased its squealing as abruptly as it had begun, quieting to its normal hum.
There were gasps, whispered prayers, speculations whether it had quieted more
quickly or more slowly than the last time and what it might mean. The five
elders grouped near Dev spoke in hushed tones. The eldest made their
ancients hunger, but our acknowledgement of them has been noted. They quiet for
now. Tomorrow, when the sun has risen one fist above the horizon, the nameless
will test themselves against the grasslands. The last to return will sate the
hunger of the ghosts of the ancients.”
down into the hole, trying to discern depths that seemed to hurtle to the
center of the world. She wondered if the nameless sacrificed in years past had
dashed their bodies on some unseen bottom or if they still fell, one after the
She tried to
imagine herself returning last from the grasslands tomorrow, standing here
faced with death. She couldn’t. It wasn’t that she thought herself stronger or
braver than the others, but she knew herself. She’d memorized the paths through
the grasslands in seven moons instead of ten, had found new traps without
triggering them. Unlike the others, she not only endured her challenges, she
at Opa, eldest of the nameless. The woman’s return gaze conveyed no fear, only
had passed since Dev reached her nineteenth nameday without being claimed to
bride. Her father's flat cheekbones and heavy jaw had dominated Dev’s features
since childhood, ensuring her failure in a community where women outnumbered
men. Her name had been stripped from her by the elders. Numbered like objects in
a game, she became the fourth of the current nameless: Opa, Usha, Kaz, Dev. Six
moons ago another unclaimed woman had joined their ranks. Opa had not yet
reached her release age of twenty-eight, and so the newest became number five,
with no one that she preferred her new life. It seemed to her an equitable
price to transition from childhood into womanhood without the constraints of
husband and children. One year of training to memorize the complex paths that
the previous nameless had mapped in the grasslands and the remaining eight
years spent exploring new paths. Her skill and safety rested in her hands alone
and she risked only a small chance that the ancient’s ghosts would wake and
hunger during her nameless years.
imagined finding a route to another village, to a new water source now that
their springs were running dry, or to a new section of safe grassland to add to
their desperately overgrazed rotations. Maybe she would be the one to lead her
village into a world that held no deadly traps at all.
stepped on a memory mine four moons ago. Lost to them now, she drifted forever
in one random day of her childhood. Jaye had not yet completed her training
year. That left only three of them eligible. And now the sphere had called for
turned from the Navel and began the walk back. Dev watched the villagers bleed
away after them until few except the nameless were left.
need to go to the grasslands," Opa said. Dev nodded.
around the hole to join them. Jaye had left with the villagers. She wasn't
eligible for tomorrow’s winnowing, and it would have been unseemly for her to
train while the rest prepared for their trial. Dev walked behind the other two
studying her companions, knowing that none would wish to see another die but
all would do their best.
stopped them as they headed toward the tall grass. "Nameless," Kann
said. "You must go practice in the grasslands to prepare for
He was a
year younger than Dev, but had taken it on himself to monitor them even more
stringently than the elders. Opa merely nodded, as if this wasn’t what they
already intended, though the direction they walked made it clear.
with arms crossed. His bare chest blended with the light dirt road, but the
bright orange and red wrap he wore stood out like fire. He continued to watch
them, as if he herded them like his family's ten-stone stee-stee birds.
Opa led as
they walked single file into the tall grass, into land that hummed below the soil—quieter
than the sphere but just as alive. All the grasslands surrounding the village
buzzed quietly. It could even be heard faintly from the center of the village,
as if swarms of humming insects, never resting, lay buried just below the dirt.
The three nameless
navigated their way through the lethal traps and relics of unknown power hidden
in the thigh-high dried grass. Grass that never broke, never changed, never
left any sign of their passage. Eighteen steps in they diverged to separate
paths, following counts memorized from the accumulated knowledge of their
At the count
of forty-two, Dev turned a quarter step left; the few grains of white at her
right foot the only indication of the sand trap hidden within the grass. Sand
which would have held her like tree sap while her flesh melted from her body.
Thirteen steps more and she leapt a silver trickle of water no wider than her
first finger. Had she touched it, it would have expanded into raging depths and
for the hundredth time what horrors the inhabitants of the old world must have
faced to have laid such a defense. Or perhaps their enemies had created these
gruesome killing fields, caging them within, much like Dev's elders had become
stories often told of their tribe who had won their way through the grasslands
and found this circle of safety that became their home. It had long provided
her people with spring water, starchy plants and safe grazing. Plentiful trees
for wood, shade, fronds and fruit. Dev suspected this had been a haven for the
ancients as well, but for her people, who needed to move on, it had become just
marker flag lay half a day's walk ahead of her—the farthest she had extended
this path while still able to return before dark. Dev scanned as she counted,
not only looking for new dangers but for any previously missed as well as for
those few that moved through the grasslands of their own accord.
training year, the older nameless told her not to deny her fear but to shut out
thoughts of failure, to always push forward. They might as well have told her
to breathe. Even as a child she had shunned conventional chores of grinding
grain and making dyes, begging instead to work with the stee-stee birds. Only
half their height as a child, she had herded them to safe feeding grounds on
the sunrise side of the grasslands and collected eggs from the aggressive
and a half steps. She turned right, skirting a small, green rock hidden a
handspan from her left foot. She didn't know what power the rock held. None in
memory had ever touched it.
were unclaimed and unwanted, expendable. They were assigned a duty likely to
kill them as an alternative to being worthless extra mouths eating the dwindling
food and drinking the precious water. If she died she wouldn’t be mourned. But
if she lived, she would be welcomed back into the community on her release day,
respected for her contribution of mapping the grasslands. And if she found a
way to a better place...
Dev heard a
shrill sound from the road, half-laugh, half scream. She looked back. More
villagers had gathered near Kann to watch them navigate the traps. A young man
held a girl by the waist. Her feet lifted from the ground as he carried her
toward the deadly grasses in mock threat while she squirmed and laughed.
back to her count.
after supper, Kann and his friend, Haii, came to the hut the nameless shared.
Dev knew they were there for her. Each woman had those who singled them out.
Two girls mocked Jaye relentlessly over her inability to obtain a marriage
proposal. Some men gave certain of the nameless endless advice on training,
though they had never been into the grasslands themselves. Young men were
sometimes drawn to one in an uneasy mix of respect and jealousy at their
courage. She thought Kann the latter; Haii more complex still.
you eat?" Kann asked her.
indicated her empty bowl sitting next to her cot.
he said. "You'll need your strength tomorrow."
remembered their friendship as children: chasing around the huts, playing hide
and find, weaving frond leaves into miniature villages. When Kann began his
chores with his family's birds, she'd begged to work with him instead of with
you should wrestle to be strong for tomorrow," Haii said.
thing he chose. Where Kann imagined he directed her training, Haii flirted with
the taboo of attraction. The opportunity for courting, marriage and the
experience of the marriage bed were over for Dev but it felt good to touch a
man sometimes. She guessed he recognized that. Perhaps this suggestion was his
way of saying goodbye in case she came in last tomorrow. Tonight wasn’t the
night for it, though.
her solitary game of sticks on her cot. Opa and Kaz watched Dev, silent.
Nameless met their own challenges.
overpowered her more often than not but never hurt her, no more than the
incidental bruises and strains she inflicted on him. But if Kann joined in, he
would be rough; his reasons for wrestling her different than Haii's.
I'll beat you again?" He pushed her shoulder hard enough that she took a
step sideways. He grinned, waiting for her to push him back. Their usual spark
didn’t respond, Haii grabbed her around the waist. Kann feigned disinterest.
She could have refused to fight back, said no. Both boys would have mocked her,
but Haii likely would have stopped. Something did kindle in her, though.
Perhaps nervous energy seeking escape. An opportunity to wrestle her fears.
Maybe nothing more than her hubris.
her arms around Haii's back and twisted, landing on him. He laughed, even as he
grunted. Her reflexes were fast after three years in the grasslands, her legs
strong, her height equal. Dev tried to pin Haii quickly, before his greater
strength wore at her; before Kann joined in. She pushed on his shoulders,
jammed one knee into the soft crease between hip and leg. She felt him give,
ready to relent.
Kann hit her
in the ribs with his shoulder, sending her rolling onto her back. Her arm flew
up with her momentum and her elbow struck him hard across the jaw.
motionless a long moment in their mutual shock at the hard blow. Anger
tightened his mouth, stiffened his shoulders. In a flash, he knelt just above
her right knee, compressing the muscle there and the joint below.
seen none of this, laughed and threw himself across her chest, pinning her.
Kann didn’t stop. He punched her thigh rapidly three times, four, five, in the
same spot. Haii rolled off Dev and stared at Kann.
As if it had
all been no more than a game, Kann stood, his face a stiff mask of unconcern. A
deep flush across his cheeks betrayed his surprise and shame at his own
actions. "You're right," he said, "you'd better rest."
She sat up
as Kann left, determined not to show pain. Haii followed him out, glancing back
to her cot suppressing a limp. Opa and Kaz said nothing. Jaye continued with
her game of sticks. She wondered if they would have intervened if she’d asked
for help. Not that she would have.
down, angry with Kann for doing such a thing this night of all nights. The
anger competed with humiliation that she hadn't been quick enough to stop him,
embarrassment that the other nameless had witnessed her pummeling, anxiety over
the tomorrow's trial. She delved for her usual confidence and found only its
the village thought the nameless molded like clay. The parents who raised them
hadn't taught them ways to entice a husband. The advice-givers took credit when
a nameless did well and claimed she hadn’t listened when one died. Haii
convinced himself he helped make Dev strong and Kann thought he disciplined
No one had
molded her. She had always been the person she was inside. And tomorrow, she
would embrace her new challenge like she had all the others. She shut out
thoughts of failure. Perhaps she would yet make a lasting contribution, one
they would all remember.
before rising that her leg had grown worse overnight. She threw back her
blanket and inspected the swollen, purple bruise on the outside of her right
thigh. Her knee buckled when she stood, the muscle refusing her weight until
she limped the first few steps. The others noticed but made no comment. What
could they say? What could any of them say to each other today?
women washed and dressed in their everyday robes of earth-tones—bright colors
being reserved for men, like the male stee-stee birds. They gathered their new
flags from where someone had placed them outside their hut, each marked in the
center with a dark line of dye, then walked with Jaye through a village empty
of all but one.
squatted outside her parent's hut and peeled twigs from a crownberry bush. For
the past four moons, since stepping on the memory mine, her every motion
repeated a single day when she had been eight years old. She peeled the twigs
with the determination of a child and the clumsiness of childish fingers,
intending to play sticks later with a friend; one who had stopped playing
nearly twenty years ago.
noticed Usha anymore, her patterns so familiar she had become invisible. Today,
though, she stood out as a stark reminder of the danger Dev would face racing
through the traps.
villagers waited at the sunset edge of the grasslands. Jaye joined the crowd of
spectators while Dev, Kaz and Opa continued on into the tall grass. They
diverged to their individual paths and stopped.
hushed. The senior of the elders barked, "Begin."
two nameless walked out with quick, measured strides. Dev ran. Her knee
threatened to buckle at the impact but she needed to run while she could,
unsure how much her leg might slow her by day’s end.
On the count
of forty-two, Dev turned at the grains of white sand. It relieved her to see
she’d measured her stride properly despite her increased pace and her heavy
limp. Thirteen steps later she saw the green rock. She skirted it and risked a
glance across the field. She was in the lead but Opa and Kaz were not far
behind. Dev felt sure of her counts, her reflexes, her ability to spot traps,
but the sun had many fists of sky left to traverse today and her leg cramped
midmorning sweat poured from her. The swelling in her thigh throbbed and she’d
been forced to a walk for nearly two fists of the sun’s passage. She had
spotted the ankle-high thorn bush trap, the immolation trap, memory mines, and
fear mines. She’d avoided a trap that would have caged her without bars—as the
bones of a previous nameless lying in the grass attested to—and dozens of
objects of unknown power.
feel a palm-sized area of raised flesh on her leg when she brushed it through
her robe, but her flag lay just ahead. Opa had already passed Dev on her way
back to the start, her old flag in her hand. Kaz was nowhere in sight.
her flag from the ground and planted the new one, its dark stripe
distinguishing one from the other. Turning, she began her journey back through
the tall grass that had straightened again behind her. Forcing herself to run,
she stifled a grunt and willed her knee not to buckle. She caught glimpses of
Opa occasionally, but never Kaz. Slowly, Dev caught up with Opa. She passed
onward, confident she could maintain her lead and still spot the traps. When
the crowd of villagers standing at the road came within sight, she looked back.
Opa was striding faster, but still lagged behind.
Dev took a
running stride to resume her pace. As her toe landed she caught sight of an
unexpected reflection shimmering in the grass a few paces in front of her. Her
arms flailed as she tried to stop from running forward into the small ball, no
larger than her palm, which lay in her path. Stumbling to a stop, she braced
for any manner of attack.
re-counted, fear pounding in her temples as she wondered if she’d strayed from
the exact turns and angles that kept her safe. She hadn't, she felt sure. Careful
of any motion that might trigger the unfamiliar trap, she squatted. Her thigh
screamed as the muscle stretched.
ball mewled like an infant. She thought it stationary until she noticed a
multitude of tiny, pink feet, each clawed at the tip with small glinting
needles. The ball weaved forward in nearly imperceptible steps from the left
side of the path. Like her, it appeared injured. She wondered if the sound was
wait for it to move on or she could jump it. Jumping would affect her count,
but worse, she pictured the trap shooting darts at her or expanding suddenly to
catch her in mid-air like a thorn trap. The risks were unacceptable. Dev
glanced back over the top of the grass to see Opa gaining.
the delay, she alternated between studying the relic and watching Opa’s
progress as the ball weaved slowly across her path. It seemed made of the same
shiny material as the sphere, but uniform gray in color and smooth, not plated.
Her mind logged its exact location and every detail of its appearance to
report—if she lived to report it. Grass crunched a dozen paces to her left. Opa
passed her position and strode onward.
moved with painstaking slowness. Dev had no option but to wait. Moving traps
were most usually triggered from the front, which meant she couldn’t skirt
around it to the right. Other traps lay between her path and Opa’s, and she if
she somehow made it around them she wouldn’t be able to calculate her counts
accurately. The grass far to her right was entirely unmapped.
passed the midpoint of her path and Dev saw a crack down the back of the thing.
Her injured thigh protesting, she folded herself lower, watching for any sign
that her movement would trigger a reaction. The mewling noise came from within
the crack. Eye level with the ball, she caught glimpses through the grass of a
small cord inside it, thinner than a necklace of corded vine fibers. Sparks,
like those that popped above a cookfire, glinted within.
At last the
trap moved far enough to her right for Dev to risk passing behind it. She moved
carefully, watching for any reaction. Once certain she was clear, she ran.
Caution was pointless now. Either she could catch Opa or she couldn't. Kaz was
either ahead of them both, injured somewhere, or she was dead. Dev had seen no
sign of her since morning.
forward with a strong lead, nearing the road. Dev counted aloud to focus,
daring to run faster still. Lancing pain shot through her thigh. She saw the
green rock and circumvented it. She risked looking up without stopping. Opa
exited the grass and handed her marker flag to one of the elders. Kaz was
nowhere to be seen.
panting. Opa was safe, and Dev was glad for her. She was close to her release
date and would likely make it now.
began again, she walked with a heavy limp. Passing the white sand, it beckoned
to her. An unpleasant death, but a known one. She turned a quarter turn,
missing the sand and staying to her path. She would face her fate. Dev exited
the grasslands and handed off her flag.
stood stoically, not reaching out to each other or to her. Haii looked sad.
Kann turned away, as if something suddenly caught his attention. She wondered
if he was disappointed in her for failing or embarrassed with himself for
losing control last night. Either way, she resolved not to tell him that her
leg injury might have helped in a way. Uninjured, she would have been faster.
The trap would have been to her left where she might have run directly in front
of it. The ball might have killed Dev as surely as the pit, another would have
been sacrificed in her place. Three nameless dead instead of two.
One of the
elders took Dev by the arm and led her away. Dev reported the ball she'd seen
so it could be recorded and mapped. Asking after Kaz, the elder confirmed her
fears. Opa had seen a blue flame envelop her.
the night alone, under guard in one of the elders' huts. They brought her an
elaborate meal that sat uneaten. Her mind jumped about like a hopper bug. She
thought about her parents. She hoped Kaz’s death had been painless. She
contemplated the mystery of the little ball and that Opa would likely be
sitting here now in her place if it hadn’t chosen that moment to cross her
moved over the gaps in the fronds over her head and still she remained awake,
unwilling to spend her last hours of life in sleep. She wished she could have
reached her release day. Even more, she wished she might have made some greater
contribution than mapping a section of grasslands.
for her just before dawn, while the light was still cold and gray.
bathed and dressed in a finely woven robe of pale blue laid out for her. A
color signifying beginnings, though she doubted that plummeting through the depths
of the Navel would be anything but an ending for her.
She was the
last to arrive. People parted for her as her escorts led her to the lip of the
hole. Her knees trembled with a fear so large that for once she couldn't find a
way to push through it. The persistent cool draft blew up the walls of the pit
causing chill bumps to rise on her forearms and neck despite the early heat of
the day. Rows of villagers watched her. Two men at her back held spears.
imminent, Dev noticed details with a clarity she’d never experienced before.
The perfect circularity of the hole. The lack of erosion at the lip. The color
on the plates of the sphere, not alternating deep blue and gold as they seemed,
but containing tiny specs of brown in the blue and hues of orange in the gold.
And there. One plate on the lower half that lifted slightly at the bottom, so
slightly she'd never noticed before. It seemed broken, not unlike the crack in
the ball. Her mind linked concepts for which she had no words. She considered her
injury, the ball’s cries, the sphere’s whine.
elder said the proscribed words but Dev heard them only faintly. She held no
illusions that she might face new challenges deep within the Navel. This was
death, nothing more, whether it satisfied the hunger of ancient powers or not,
protected the village or not -- things she was now coming to doubt.
The time for
her final contribution had come. Most nameless jumped feet-first, one had
swan-dived, and one had required the help of the spear points. Dev had figured
when the moment came, she would know how to end it. Now she did.
Not for the bottom, but for the sphere. Heart pounding, she landed squarely on
her belly and wrapped her arms and legs hard around the cool tiles. She braced
for it to plummet into the pit with her atop it. For it to roll, sliding her
off into the depths. For it to explode, like one of the mines. It did none of
villagers gasped. The elders shouted. The men with spears struck at her, but
the sphere had drifted down far enough with her weight that they couldn't reach
her without risk of falling. Grappling with one hand, she felt for the gap
she'd seen. Her heart beating fast as a greenbird's trill, she jerked at the
loose plate, nearly sliding off the side when it lifted easily. The plate now
angled straight out from the sphere, blocking her view of what lay beneath.
Dev shouted. "What do you see?"
And Opa was
there for her. The woman pushed her way around the rim until she stood directly
across from the plate. The elders threatened her, but none came close enough to
risk falling into the Navel. One of the men shoved a spear at her and Opa
grabbed at the shaft. He backed away. She lay flat on the ground to see better.
four thin vines within. They anchor at top and bottom, like the vines covering
the black square on the seventeenth path, count eighty-six."
As Dev had
suspected. Cords, the same as the ball had possessed. The ball that weaved and
mewled as if injured. Perhaps the periodic whine of the sphere had never been a
call for sacrifice, but an illness. Maybe all the relics were ill with age, or
maybe the sphere’s illness infected them all.
might be able to kill the traps, Opa. Be vigilant the next time you go out. I
may be wrong."
perplexed, but nodded.
beneath the plate and felt for the cords. Grabbing all four, she yanked. A
shower of fire sparks arced out and down into the pit, flickering as they fell.
The sphere's humming stopped.
Dev felt the
moment stretch, like the moment of shock she and Kann experienced when she
struck him across the face with her elbow. Her success surprised her and she
faced an instant of indecision; complete her sacrifice or survive? With the
reflexes of a nameless, she pushed to hands and feet and leapt up for the rim
of the pit as the sphere fell away into the Navel.
fingertips hooked on the sandy soil near Opa. Her weight hung from the edge one
heartbeat before her fingers slipped free.
her wrists in a bone-crushing grip. The men with spears rushed her but Jaye
stepped between them. Opa held onto Dev fiercely.
Dev said, into the silence of the dead sphere. She meant the word to reach
everyone but desperation and fear made her voice no more than a breath. Opa
heard her, though, and she listened.
grasslands are quiet," Opa shouted over one shoulder to the elders and
villagers. Sweat dotted her brow. Her arms shook with the strain of maintaining
understood immediately. "The traps are dead," she cried. She dropped
to her knees by Opa and grabbed Dev by one forearm. Together, she and Opa
pulled Dev over the lip of the pit. Dev, weak with relief, curled at Opa’s
traps are dead," Opa repeated in wonder.
her head to look up at the men with spears, at the elders.
approached. Dev watched his every motion, wondering if he would grab the spear
and push her in himself. Instead, he reached a hand to her. Dev took it,
feeling his dry, warm, wrinkled hand. He pulled her to her feet.
the first trap on your path," he said in a voice devoid of emotion or
judgment. "Touch it."
and limping, Dev obeyed. The villagers crowded behind her to the start of the
steps then forty-two, to the handful of white sand. She bent to touch it. She
pictured the flesh melting from her bones as she screamed. She pictured Opa
being sacrificed in her place.
happened. The sand felt cool and grainy under her fingertips.
straightened and looked out over the grasslands at a world of possibilities.