The Way of Spirits
The Ceremony of Naming began long, long ago, back when the Emeraude Forest still resembled her name. Countless armies have marched beneath our boughs since then, stripping the gems of earth and maiming the living totems of our ancestors, the beings who stretch between earth and sky.
The goddess punished us for failing to protect our forest home from outside forces. She sent raiding bands who pillaged and burned.
We understood. The tribulations of the world are not our concern. We withdrew deeper between the trees. And we made a vow to the goddess. We will do anything to protect our home.
In spite of our failings, pieces of the old remain true.
We remain, here, hidden inside this forest. The Emeraude is our birthright and we, hers, whether the limbs are bare or blossom-laden.
Traders seeking our wisdom—those who pass through but never remain—bring gifts to our home. Their ships bear rare herbs from Lis-Maen. Others carry fine teas from the south, rolling fields that stand between here and Palais. They climb the hillsides, into the mountain peaks, and descend again into the vast reaches of our forest.
Each naming, we strive to return the forest to her former state. When all is as the goddess wills, the Emeraude will return to the way she was made.
And we will ascend into the power we were destined to command.
She has heard this story every autumn. As the leaves transformed her forest home, as the coven built the fires to celebrate the final harvest, the elders reminded the nameless why they are without a name to call.
It was not yet time, but soon would be.
The wrinkled herbalist smiled as she ground the river-wet sage beneath the worn stone of her pestle. Its syrupy gurgle wafted scents of spring-melt and soft mint with each circular grind. “Those who don’t belong, who would cause us harm, don’t make it far. The maera see to that.” The pointed ends of her filed teeth glinted in the firelight as her eyes rested on the semicircle of upturned faces. The herbalist gave her but a glance before moving on. This was the way it had always been.
The elder was one of the few who passed on to a second life within the coven, whose sacrifices granted her the ability to live on and on among them. She had served the renge before beginning a second study at the knee, the embedded mark of the crow already pressed at the corners of her eyes. It was a time when the forest had grown even leaner than it was now.
After the naming, perhaps she too might join the renge, the band of fierce witches trained in hunting, combat, and the seeing arts. They slipped as shadows between the trees or drove the rangale of cervidae after their prey. They left offerings for the maera and worked closely with the remaining daimon pack who roamed at the base of the mountains. The Emeraude had been their home before the goddess sent the witches here.
From an early age, she had learned to fear and respect all who called the forest home. If she could find a way to prove her worth to the Emeraude, the forest would find a way to let her stay.
But this was not to be.
Each day in the fortnight before the naming, she rose at dawn and walked, barefoot, to the edge of the Iclyee. The cold bite of the rushing water pricked her skin, and the burbling rapids soothed the frayed edges of her spirit.
My mother was a spirit-vessel.
This, the river knew. “That is not so dark as it seems, little one,” the water replied.
The Iclyee was one of a few spirits who whispered the thrilling edge of a name in her ear. She wiped the end of her nose, a rounded ball of cold against the back of her hand.
But I want to be something else. I want to continue to be.
“Hmm,” the water rumbled, “we asked to remain ourselves at the dawn of the worlds. The goddesses gave us each other instead.”
An honor, her coven would have said. But all the river’s water was allowed to return. It continued to babble and breathe.
The dark moons rose, an auspicious conjunction, the matron had declared, one that no coven member had ever witnessed in this lifetime.
Star-stories glimmered down at her, winking in turn behind the veil of thin clouds.
To take part in the Ceremony of Naming, after reaching the proper age, each nameless presented the matron with a tea of her own creation, a gift in exchange for a name. With a name, a witch became part of the coven. With a name, a witch gained a family and responsibilities to share.
She had selected her tea carefully, a unique blend that came from the southern fields best known for their wisdom and seeing properties. She blended the leaves with chamomile, purple ausplind, and a single sprig of lavender and rested the mortar on three fresh leaves—one of bay, one of sage, and one from the rowan tree that leaned out over the river.
With this offering, the matron would see the rootedness she had formed within the coven despite her growing up alone. “Each of these I have raised from root to leaf,” she longed to say, “just as the coven has raised me.”
She still remembered the first time Baba Mae had taken her to see the river and pointed her gnarled finger at the spindly lean of the rowan tree. “Your mother planted that tree the night before they sent her away, the night before you were born” the elder healer had said. “I see much of her in you.”
The healers had told her that her mother possessed the same moss-green eyes, raven-black hair, and olive-toned skin.
How much of her life had she spent trying to prove the resemblance stopped at the surface?
They gathered in the sacred clearing with the twin shadow moons overhead. Each of the nameless bowed before the matron. She sipped thrice from their cup of tea and pronounced the name the spirits gave her, the one whispered by the earth and the ancestors in the trees.
Nameless and motherless, she was the last to approach the antlered throne.
Her hands shook as she placed the simple tray on the wooden platform at the matron’s feet. Some of the other nameless, especially those whose ancestors had been matrons themselves, possessed heirloom trays, carved with the runes of destiny, foretelling their line’s future and recounting their past. Later generations had inlaid the runes with silver or turquoise. Hers was a planed sheaf of bark.
Upon the heirloom trays, each of the fragile pieces had been carefully selected, often from several options and whatever symbolism the family deemed best to present to the matron and the spirits. They set an ivory spoon and jade cup beside a kettle forged from bronze and polished to shining.
A few of the nameless had even begun to follow their mothers in their daily tasks. The one with straight brown hair had pressed ink into her fingertips and dribbled three dots onto the end of her nose to show her readiness to join the scribes.
She had spent three great-moons hollowing her cup from the fallen limb of the old oak to ensure no splinters remained. She had braided dried spindles of rosemary to form the small plate beneath the cup.
Aside from the rowan tree, the one item she had found in her mother’s leaning hut when the healers judged her old enough to live on her own was a cracked brass kettle, rumored to have been a gift from her father, a highlander who had begged her mother to run away with him before the naming.
What might have happened had her mother assented? Would the souls of the ancestors have risen from their tree trunk graves to prevent her flight? The de-spiriting ceremony had granted her mother six additional moons, a boon no other vessel had ever had. Had she seen the time to bring her daughter into the world as a blessing? Or did that cast a darker pall over her spirit-death, departing the Emeraude alone?
She stepped back, her head lowered until she was a respectful distance away.
All the eyes of the coven turned to the elderly woman perched upon the throne.
The matron opened her palm, and her helper poured the tea.
For fortnights, the nameless had vied to be the first in the ceremony. The first selection’s tea would retain the purest flavor, that of its strongest intent, rather than growing bitter as the ceremony progressed.
The matron swirled the wooden cup beneath her nose, wafting the thin stream of steam from the cup into her nostrils. Her face betrayed no emotion as she raised the cup to her lips.
Place me with the healers, she asked the spirits as the matron swallowed her first sip. Allow me to repay them for helping me as a child.
The matron stretched her arm out toward the trees, bidding the ancestors nearer. She returned the cup to her lips and sipped again.
I am brave enough to serve the renge. I will fight honorably and defend you from those who would bring harm.
The matron smacked her lips and placed both hands around the cup for her final draught. As she tipped the dregs of the cup into her mouth, her eyes rolled in the back of her head. She arched her shoulders against the throne. The liquid wave crested in her chest, and she reared forward. Her eyes flared open, bright yellow, now, instead of the brown of damp wood. “Daughter of Teresa,” the matron sighed, “the one who fought her fate . . .”
Her heart thudded in the hollow of her chest, the wardrum whose beat had followed her every step.
“I have a name for you.” The matron’s wide, toothy grin had none of a renard’s warmth or a daimon’s wisdom. She was the mountain lion incarnate, salivating over cornered prey.
Only a few of the coven witches swayed back and forth, autumn leaves caressed by a cold breeze. The others stared at her, a lone nameless, trapped in the center of their ring. Their eyes were empty reflections of the storied stars above.
To them, she could never have earned a different fate.
“Tess-sina,” the matron hissed.
A shudder rippled over the assembled crowd. A few of the elders gasped. The kindest of the nameless raised their hands to cover their mouths.
Named for her mother, the harvested one, whose identity burned only in its extinguishing for the soul of the forest.
And for victory. When the third candle was blown out, the line was no more.
The matron raised her head to take in the coven surrounding them.
Far, far away, the river roared.
“My sisters,” the embodied crone called, “daughters, all—”
Far, far above, the treetops writhed and whispered.
“My grandmother’s sins from a century ago will this night be undone.” With shaking arms, the matron pushed herself up from her antlered throne. She pointed a gnarled finger at Tess-sina’s chest as the matron’s mother, Baba Mae, had done to show her the tree so long ago. “We’ve no need of pollution from beyond our borders, no invasive streaks of mercy for those who do not to our forest belong.”
Ravens croaked within Tess-sina’s mind. So this was why. Her hands twitched. You only pretended to offer shelter to one not your own.
The matron’s screech shot out across the clearing, her hands raised to the cloudy sky. “Our forest will grow strong again,” she cried. “With her spirit renewed, the goddess’s blessing shall once again be ours!”
The witches screamed, their hands and faces upturned to the closed eyes of the moon goddess high above. Others stomped their feet, alerting the spirits who swam along the earth below. The time for their sacrifice had come.
“Arise, Emeraude,” the Seers shouted, “arise!”
Tess-sina’s legs shook.
The winnowers grinned as they swept their scythes in front of their chests. They began to chant the severing-spirit song.
The matron nodded at Shadda, the leader of the renge.
The warrior’s curved blade sighed as she pulled her free from her sheath. Their energy, their power, hummed as one.
“No,” Tess-sina whispered. After all she had done, all she had tried to be.
They would tear her spirit from her body and give her corpse to the ancestor trees.
Emeraude was hungry, vengeful, and in need.
Tess-sina’s thighs tightened. She glanced at the surrounding circle of witches. They pressed shoulder to shoulder together.
She could never run free.
A raindrop plinked down into the empty cup of tea the matron had cast aside.
Shadda twirled her blade in her hand and stomped across the clearing.
The coven’s pounding feet raced with Tess-sina’s heart.
“This won’t be enough,” she shouted at the matron.
But the wide, panther’s smile continued to shine.
From deep within the forest, a raven called.
And then another.
For a moment, the stomping faltered.
The patter of raindrops tiptoed closer, tiny stones running across Emeraude’s hair. Its stream trickled down from the leaves and sprinkled across the clearing like a warm spray of blood.
The warrior wiped the water over her face, rubbing the water spirits’ blessings into her skin. “By the light of the day and the dark of the moon”—Shadda murmured the renge’s prayer of sacrifice as she advanced—“over mother earth and her lover, the dancing air—”
Whooshing wind rose overhead, buffeting the splay of branches.
Tess-sina backed away, her feet slipping on a soggy patch of leaves.
The warrior shouted to be heard by the spirits over the howling wind. “By fire’s bite and water’s power, we release thee to the void, into the forgotten embrace of nature’s bower.”
Lightning crackled as Shadda hefted the shining curve of her blade overhead.
Tess-sina cried out.
And the thunderous form of a shadow-spirit with wide, raven’s wings burst into the space between them.
The impact drove the warrior from her feet and sent Tess-sina skidding over the damp carpet of fallen, flame-colored leaves.
The raven spirit did not fly alone. Darting shadows flooded the clearing, swooping upon the driving waves of the rain. They dove from the treetops into the waterlogged earth, the ground shaking as they struck against the foundation of root and rock below.
Witches screamed as they fled through the forest, abandoning the press of their circle. The sweeping storm of ravens pursed them into the trees. The witches’ shouts echoed through the dark.
The matron bellowed, her hunched body erect before her throne. Her fingertips writhed as she bid the ancestors’ spirits to spring forth from the trees and defend her. “Enact Emeraude’s will!” she ordered her warrior.
Shadda rose to her feet and tossed back the long, golden locks of her hair. The warrior froze as the winged silhouette of a woman strode forth from the trees.
Tess-sina’s lips fell open. Emeraude’s spirit-protectors were said to be women with wings, the fallen warriors of old who would one day rise in answer to the forest’s call.
A second flash of lightning crackled overhead. Tess-sina gasped. This was no spirit. A sepia-skinned fae strode into the clearing. She pulled taut the longbow in her hands. Upon her back, slate-colored wings fluttered as mist, undulating night.
Shadda halted, halfway between Tess-sina and the fae. She turned to the matron.
And in her doubt, the warrior made her mistake.
The fae glanced at Tess-sina. Lavender irises glowed. “Run,” she breathed. In a single fluid motion, she turned her bow from Shadda to the matron and loosed the arrow she held.
Tess-sina sprinted toward the cover of the trees.
Thunk. With her second footfall, the arrow found its mark. Tess-sina glanced back. The arrow creaked through the ancient body, thudding to a stop as the indigo fletching met the bone of the matron’s chest. Thick torrents of blood pooled over wrinkled skin, soaking her elder’s cloak.
Shadda’s cry rent the trees. Branches tumbled free. Tess-sina dodged one’s grasping fall and slid free of a second.
Ahead of her, the river called.
Three shadow ravens flitted to her side. They burst against the raining limbs. Tess-sina raised her arm, shielding her face from the splintered spray.
She leapt over fallen limbs as the ravens coalesced around her. The cries of her coven faded as the thunderous voice of the river bid her back to her frosted banks.
The rowan tree bowed in the storm. One of her branches broke free and pitched into the water.
“This way,” a whispered voice, one she’d never heard before, murmured inside her mind. “Follow the rowan and find your destiny.”
Tess-sina leapt past her mother’s tree and plunged into the icy waters below. The rushing cold pounded against her ears. Life and memory pulsed and rolled all around her. The spirits pressed against her lungs as the current drug her to the water’s surface.
She gasped for breath, tugging her head free from the churning rapids. A path of winding dark rolled over rocks and forest ahead of her, rumbling deeper into the heart of Emeraude.
Battered and bruised from the worn, hidden teeth of the Iclyee, Tess-sina swam for the shallows and dragged herself ashore. Water streamed from the sodden wool of her dress. Her thin leather boots squelched in the sand as she sank onto the riverbank.
Wafting waves of energy and the persistent beat of wings approached. Tess-sina tilted her head back.
The fae archer clamped her wings tight together and plummeted onto the sand beside her, fist, foot, and knee striking at once. She bent her head toward Tess-sina’s. Dark blue braids fell free from her shoulder. Up close, a pattern of tattoos covered her skin, the same slate as her wings covering over the sepia glow. The markings were druidic or some other ancient form of magic, Tess-sina wasn’t sure.
A single shadow raven, the same size as the tree dwellers she had known all her life, flapped down onto the sand in front of her. The bird croaked and tilted its head.
The fae raised her eyebrow at the spirit familiar. “She wants to know your name,” the archer said as she turned back to Tess-sina. “What is it?”
Her breath hitched in her throat. Teresa, her mother’s name. Little one, the river had whispered. Harvest and victory, the matron had called her.
She took the fae’s proffered hand and pulled herself up to her feet. Her lips twisted into a smirk as her spirit supplied the name—the calling—she had long been without. “Tessina,” she answered. For her mother and grandmother, and for the countless lost spirits, a harvester she would be.
By the Flame and the Forge Prologue, “The Way of Spirits,” copyright 2021 Beth Ball. All rights reserved.