Spirit's Chosen (Princesses of Myth) Online - Esther Friesner

The first flakes of an early snowfall drifted from the sky as Kaya and I began our descent from the hillside above my village. I took deep breaths of the cold air and knew that autumn had slipped away at last. The final steps of the dance that I had just performed for the spirits still echoed through my bones. The lingering scent of summer from the thick pad of fallen pine needles in the forest behind us clung to me like a swirl of ghosts. I was going home.

“Kaya?” I paused partway down the slope and turned to her. She was being unnaturally silent and it troubled me. I was the daughter of the Matsu clan’s chieftain and her mother was chieftess and shaman of the Shika, yet our equal rank as princesses of our peoples was not what bound our lives together. We had become friends when I’d wandered into her village, many years ago, but neither she nor I could say exactly why we’d taken to each other so quickly. Perhaps we each recognized something in the other that we lacked, some quality that made the two of us better, stronger, happier together than we could be on our own. Even if she or I had been born to a family with no noble blood at all, we still would have been the best of friends, and more than that: we were sisters in spirit.

“Kaya, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” I could barely hear her response, muttered under her breath. She wouldn’t look at me.

I refused to let her stay silent. “You’re a bad liar.” I spoke gently so she would know I meant no real insult. “You’re so quiet. Something is bothering you. What? Are you worried about what we’ll find down there?” I gestured to where my village lay, or what was left of it.

We were the Matsu, the pine tree clan, as strong and steadfast as the venerable tree that was our guardian spirit. Our village was protected by a sturdy wooden palisade, ringed by a wide ditch, and barricaded behind massive gates. A tall watchtower gave our sentries a good view of the surrounding countryside so that our warriors could rush to defend us when an enemy force appeared in the distance.

It hadn’t been enough. The Ookami—the wolf clan—had brought war to our land, and they won.

Our gates were smashed, our watchtower pulled down, our palisade broken, the dirt walls of our moat undermined until they’d collapsed. Many of our houses were now no more than smoldering piles of blackened timbers and ash. Worse, the ancient pine that was the living symbol of our people had been toppled and destroyed, leaving nothing behind but a splintered stump, a shattered blade that thrust at the heavens and stabbed at the heart of the Matsu.

“Are you afraid the Ookami haven’t gone?” I persisted. “Let me go ahead alone, then. If I don’t come back for you, you can—”

“As if I’d let you risk yourself like that!” she snapped. “If the Ookami are still in your village, we’ll face them together. Do you think I’m a liar and a coward?”

“You know I didn’t mean such a thing. And a coward would never have left the safety of her own village to travel here with me,” I replied evenly. “I’d never question your courage, but I have to question your silence. It’s not like you. What’s stolen your tongue?”

She looked at her feet again.

“Kaya, if you don’t speak up, how can I—?”

“It’s that.” Her eyes flashed with anger as they met mine. She gestured sharply at the wand of cherrywood in my hand.

Her words startled me. I turned the smooth stick slowly between my fingers. The glossy, dark brown bark looked almost black in the pale light of an overcast sky, but all along its length were frothy clusters of pink flowers. With the world poised at the gateway to winter, this thin branch was cloaked in blossoms of spring.

“This?” I was honestly bewildered. “This is what’s troubling you? But it’s a good sign, Kaya; we both know that.”

“Maybe you do.” My friend turned her gaze to the uphill path. “You’re a shaman; you’re at ease with things like this. I don’t know what to make of it. You had that twig with you on the day Sora brought you into our village, when you were lost and half mad with thirst and hunger. It’s been nothing more than a sliver of dead wood for many seasons since then, yet suddenly