I peeked through the tent flap and caught a glimpse of movement in the distance. A lookout. I shrank back to wait, then peeked out again. They would not stop me, of course, but neither would they leave me to myself. Finally, the way seemed clear. I rushed into the shelter of trees and darkness to the holy spring, the only place that was mine. Any other would be driven mad to walk here, they said. Perhaps it was true.
I looked into the water and beheld myself, painted in the patterns that marked me as the God-Chosen. I did not feel God-Chosen. Paint stained the water as I touched the surface, and it was like it washed the strangeness out of me. Suddenly I had to be clean. I scooped water, scrubbing the paint away. I rubbed my face and neck until my skin felt raw, and the paint bloomed into the water, carried away by the spring’s flow.
Finally, I saw my face reflected in the moonlight. This young girl, who was she? Not the God-Chosen of a tribe. The elder God-Chosen — my mother — said that the gods spoke to me through the spill of runes from my hands. But did they? My hands felt like a girl’s hands, clumsy and unsure. I heard no voices, and I made no promises as she had done. Perhaps it was for the best. The gods were capricious, and had used false words to toy with her before.
I touched the water as if laying my hand upon a friend’s brow, addressing my words to the reflected moon in the night sky. “My name is not Hesralta God-Chosen. I am Sryilla Tusfelt. I am a girl. And I am lonely.”
“Your mother was not lonely, at your age.”
All sound ceased but for this voice, and as I whirled I found the entire world was at rest. Windblown leaves hung in the air, insects sat embedded in the air like a stone set into jewelry, even the dust that my movement unsettled had frozen around my feet. “Who are you?”
She ignored my words. Naked and pale, she sat on a rock to watch me. Her brilliantly silver hair floated and streamed as she moved, as if she were underwater. “Your mother was satisfied with her position. She lived in accordance with her rank in the tribe. She told people what to do. She used the respect that was afforded her.”
My eyes widened, and my blood ran cold. I began to fall to my knees, bending to press my face to the dirt, but in a flicker she stood before me, and a cold slap stung my cheek. Her tone was gentle, a counterpoint. “Do not bow and scrape. Stand, speak. Alone among humans, you do not ever bow to anybody.”
I recovered from my shock and stood straighter, my mind awhirl. “You are Luwana? You are . . . the moon?”
She did not look at me as she went to the holy spring, sinking into the water with each graceful step. “I am.”
“You say my mother was confident in her role. Is that why you spoke to her, and only now speak to me?”
Luwana turned, her eyes narrowed. “It is why we never spoke to her. Your mother has never been God-Chosen. You are a different concern. You question your place, your worthiness, you never claim more than you know. Your name is no longer Sryilla Tusfelt. Nor are you Hesralta. You will return to the tribe and declare yourself “Nayralea God-Chosen”. Come. Bathe.”
I had not come to do more than wash off the ceremonial paints. But when the moon calls, you do not hesitate. I let my robes slide off my shoulders and stepped into the waters, shivering at their chill. Luwana turned and held me, drawing me deeper. “Shed your ties, little mortal.”
I felt the pull. Somehow, I knew what to do, but I looked up to her, ashamed of the fear I felt. “Will I be alone forever? I hate this. Nobody wants to be near me. Everybody is afraid of me. I could choose anybody I wanted for a friend or a lover, but it would only be because the God-Chosen asked it. Can’t I ever just make friends?”
She stood in the water with me, her eyes searching me. “You would reject our gifts?”
I shook my head, mourning what I was about to lose, and took a breath to dive beneath the water. Her hand on my throat caught me. She did not strangle me, but her grip was so firm it might have been rooted in the bones of the earth itself. “I am not done with you. If our choice saddens you, why accept your fate?”
I looked into her silvery eyes, then down. Her eyes shone right through me, and looking into them was too intense for more than a moment’s gaze. “My people need guidance. I have a duty to them. I always have.”
She watched me, and I feared that my answer was not good enough for her. But her gaze softened, and she pulled me in hugging me close. “It will be okay. You won’t always be alone. Now, find your way.”
I nodded and dove into the water. I had stood in water a few feet deep a moment ago, but now I swam deeper into the darkness. My arms burned and my lungs began to ache, but I swam deeper; I knew if I turned back I wouldn’t find a surface behind me anymore. Finally, the waters lightened around me, and I broke a surface, gasping for breath. Anybody else would have changed their position in the world, swimming so far. Somehow I understood that every stroke had changed me, instead.
“Nayrlea!” Luwana was there, hugging me again. A naked man with bright, cold blue eyes watched from the shore.
“Luwana . . . I made it.” I slumped in her arms, muscles trembling. My eyes turned to the man watching from the shore. His eyes roamed me, and my face burned under his gaze.
“You made it. Let me introduce you to Al Kutb .”
I had to fight the urge to lower my head; the guide-star had come to see me Chosen. “I am honored.” My voice squeaked, and my face burned hotter.
Luwana raised her hands as if calling, and moonlight answered, weaving a thin robe around me. “Stop staring, Al Kutb. You’re embarrassing her.”
He looked at Luwana, and the way his eyes roamed her was clearly not innocent. “You know where my real interest lies. Looking at her is just appreciating good artistry.”
“Hush, Al-Kutb. Mortals are present. We must have some secrets, even from our Chosen. Come, we have a gift for you, Nayrlea.”
Luwana took my hand and led me to shore, where Al Kutb held up his hands, opening them to reveal a small white mouse. “This little one is soul-bound to you now, Nayrlea God-Chosen Tuwalt, ”
Luwana moved past me, irritated. “I thought we agreed on a cat!”
His glance at her was amused, his smile smug. “But she squeaks to like a mouse.”
“She’s beautiful.” I stood up straight, fighting the urge to bow before the gods. “She’s beautiful! I thank you, Al Kutb.”
Luwana seemed a little mollified, and Al Kutb seemed even more smug, if such a thing were possible. “You have the honor of naming her. Trust her. She will guide you as I guide the ships. She will teach you who your true friends are; and who truly loves you, too.”
I looked down at the mouse in my hands, who leaned up toward me. I lifted her higher, and my lips pulled into a smile as her tiny paw touched the tip of my nose.
Luwana’s voice came to me gently. “You are the spiritual leader of your tribe now, Nayrlea God-Chosen Tuwalt. We will guide your visions and the spill of any rune from your hand. Go in peace and honor.”
I looked up, and leaves were drifting through the air, crickets were chirping, my dress was mere cotton, and I was alone but for a mouse. “Wait! I’m not ready! I’m . . . I’m not special, I don’t know what to say!”
A squeak made me look down; the mouse was peering up at me, as if to ask what happened next. “I’m supposed to know what to say. Am I supposed to know your name? Perhaps ‘Whisfayn’. You are supposed to show me who is friend and who is foe, you are a gift from Al Kutb, and it means way-finder in the old tongue. Do you like it?”
The mouse sniffed at my palm, then began to climb my moonlight shift. I helped her to my shoulder, and I started on my way home. I looked at the pile of robes by the water, and decided to leave them behind – they belonged to a different girl.
I wondered what I would do, what I would say. Things began to seem very complicated. Somehow, as ordinary as I felt, I would have to declare myself truly God-Chosen, and declare my authority to supersede my mother’s.
I hoped my mother would not resent me. I hoped I would not have to declare her false. I hoped I would not be declared heretic. For a moment, I had convinced myself that with the support of the gods, everything would be okay. Now, I suspected it would not be so easy.
Nayrlea God-Chosen, formerly Hesralta God-Chosen, formerly Syrilla Tusfelt returned to her people, the first to have been presented as a successor to the gods, and accepted. She returned in moonlight that became her robe, accompanied by a star that became a mouse. Her mother had chosen her daughter, but chose well, for she was twice-chosen by powerful gods, by the moon and by the guidestar. Today, I go to the choosing. When I die, my writing of my predecessor will add a page to our written traditions, as having been the successor chosen for the gods to accept – or reject.
Also added to our traditions will be these writings of myself. I will not be accepted. I wear the paint and throw the runes, I return from the holy spring sane and whole. But I didn’t want this life, and the Gods have never spoken to me. My runes foretell only what chance decides to agree with later. They will see my heart, and know I am not devoted enough.
Yula wants this choosing badly; it was her mother’s, and Yula thinks she should have been named to succeed her. She said a harvest goddess once spoke to her, after all. After I am rejected, she will probably have it. I am glad that the time approaches to choose someone, though. Nayrlea God-Chosen has been ill, and to guide us takes much of her strength.
I leave this as a record for the Gods and Our descendants. May they remember Nayrlea God-Chosen, may they remember her named successor, and if I may be so bold, may they remember Yula. She is headstrong, but I love her.
My final words to those who would call us ‘ancestors’ are this: question yourself. Answers are within you, but if you do not know those halls, you will only get lost when you seek them. Question yourself, know yourself, and the answers will welcome you.
I am Nosamo the Successor, formerly Nosson Rilnr. I now go to be chosen. Or not.