“Girl!” The all-too familiar summons shattered the morning stillness. Shaking, MangoTree clutched the waterskin with perspiring fingers. Its contents sloshed dangerously, and a precious stream dribbled onto the ground like unwelcome tears. A hand, hard as a slab of granite, slammed into the girl’s arm. The remaining water exploded from the skin in rivulets of moisture. “What have I told you about gazing upon the Accursed One?”
MangoTree began the painstaking task of signing, her hands trembling in their task. “I only thought to help her, Father. The little girl clung to her, and—“
Another vicious cuff was delivered, this time to the girl’s right cheek. Instinctively, she thrust her hands upward in order to shield herself. “Fool,” Gruffbear hissed. “That girl is the Beast’s by rights. I’ll not have you socializing with those blights upon our land! Now, since you so carelessly spilled our water, I suggest you procure more. No delays!”
MangoTree staggered toward the nearby stream. Pain sliced through her arm and mutilated cheek. Fear pummelled her stomach, and, beneath that crushing assault burned the ember of another emotion. Hatred.
A bitter taste has lingered upon my tongue for all the days of my recollection. I do not know from whence this constant foulness arose, but I have an inkling. My mother was a highly respected midwife in our village. Of course, this was before our revered High Priest discovered her grievous sin. I have seen the herbs that Wolf Tongue delivered to our hut, have witnessed the way Mother’s hands trembled. I have seen her face convulse in spasms of agony and witnessed the diamond-like tears that flowed when she thought she was unobserved. She cried silently, of course, for all women under the rule of our god are denied a voice. Although only ten at the time, I knew Mother was doing work she despised.
One day, as Mother worked, I noticed that the fumes from the concoction she prepared were not as pungent. In fact, the medicine’s scent was slightly sweet. Most strange of all, a small smile lingered upon Mother’s lips.
The next day, I was in the mango tree grove, delighting in the feel of the fleshy fruit that was my namesake. Mother had returned from a birthing just that morning, and, as always, she was exhausted. Yet, she had seemed more energetic today. Still, I knew she needed nourishment, and nothing brought happiness to Mother like freshly squeezed mango juice. I always assumed that was why I had been given my name, since the fruit was her favorite. However, Mother had told me when I was younger that I was named MangoTree because of the strong roots that dug deeply into the soil. Her hands moving in a rhythmic dance, she had said, “You are a strong girl, my child. Never forget that you can stand against the men who try to harm you. You will survive. I have asked that the One Who Names All Names will give you the strength to live.” This was the only time Mother had referred to someone who would help me, and I had been shocked by her refusal to acknowledge our god as the supreme helper of all our land. Now, as I retrieved clusters of the fragrant fruit, I allowed my thoughts to linger on that strange event. Young as I was, I knew that I was not strong. I was—
Suddenly, a piercing scream rent the air in two. My blood froze in horror. I knew who was screaming even though I had never heard her voice before. Dropping my basket, I catapulted from the grove and right into the arms of the High Priest.
Wolf Tongue did not address me, but his large, probing eyes roved over my face. They gleamed with a harsh light. The man was massive, and his face was stony. His robe of wolf skin was thrown back, exposing his bare, scarred torso. He held a pewter cup in one hand and clutched a female infant in his arms.
“I apologize, High Priest,” I hastily signed, my fingers trembling.
Wolf Tongue’s handsome features relaxed as he continued to peruse my face. His gaze slowly travelled down the length of my body. Hastily, I backed away. “Do not worry, sweet one. You may return to your home. I think you will be needed.” As he spoke these words, his eyes gleamed strangely, yet his deep voice was gentle.
Suddenly, the infant which Wolf Tongue held emitted an odd sound, a sound resembling rushing water and birdsong. Was it laughter? Impossible! Women never--
Wolf Tongue’s strange smile shattered, and his hold on the infant tightened. The laugh changed to a frightened cry. Fear seized my heart, and I pelted toward my home. Before reaching the stone hut, I turned in time to see the High Priest forcing the pewter cup between the girl’s lips. Noxious fumes pummelled my nostrils, and a deathly silence descended.
Entering the hut, I saw Father bending over a lifeless form covered in blood. His shoulders heaved with strange convulsions. I had never seen Father’s face so livid yet filled with sadness and terror. I ran to Mother’s pallet and crumpled to the ground in a heap, odd whimpers escaping from my mouth.
Father turned to me, his red-rimmed eyes filled with an all-consuming anger. In his hand, he clutched a pewter cup that held dregs of a strange-looking concoction. A sweet smell emanated from the cup, and I suddenly recognized the scent of mangoes. “This rested beside her body. I came in and found her like this. Where were you, girl? Wh-Why was she alone?” With each word, Father’s voice rose in hysteria. He glared at me. I bit my lip, rocking two and fro as the barrage of angry words pulverized my heart. Father, though indifferent to me in the past, had never tried to hurt me. Yet, I had left Mother alone, so perhaps his anger was justified. From then on, Father was never the same, and I knew the wrath of the Beast had been unleashed upon our land.
“I say, miss? Are you all right?”
MangoTree bolted to her feet. She stood ramrod straight, the waterskin securely clutched in her hands. This time, she would not spill a drop.
Turning from the stream, she stared into the eyes of a brawny young boy. He was tall, and he wore the robes of a distinguished chieftain’s son. His face wore a look of concern. “I noticed you sitting alone.”
“What do you want?” MangoTree’s fingers fumbled in her haste to sign. How long had she been sitting here? Father would be furious. She knew she could not endure another beating. She was simply too tired.
The boy reached into the pocket of his robe, extracting a handful of figs. “Are you hungry?”
MangoTree was about to vehemently shake her head, but, her traitorous stomach chose that moment to growl. Blushing, she nodded.
The boy laughed. “Is your name Lionessheart? You certainly roar like one!” Grinning, he handed her the figs.
MangoTree’s cheeks warmed. Her fingers moving in an intricate dance, she signed, “No. I am MangoTree. But, I wish I was a lioness. Will you eat with me?” She proffered a handful of the figs.
The chieftain’s son smiled and lowered himself to the ground. “I thank you, Maid MangoTree.” He bit into one of the figs, and MangoTree grinned as she saw pulp catch in his bottom teeth. She felt a light sensation stir within her, one which seemed to slightly quench the ember of hate.
When they finished their meal, the boy stood. “I must be on my way now,” he said. “Can you please direct me? I seek the house of Eldest Panther Master. The Crescent People have repledged their allegiance, and I journey ahead to bear the news.”
Sharp, excruciating terror pummeled MangoTree’s heart. Frenzidly, she signed, “But, then that means, you have been pledged to marry the—“
“Yes, that is true,” the chieftain’s son said. His face fell for a moment, but then it reassumed its good-natured countenance. “I have not met her yet, but, I will do what must be done.”
Slowly, MangoTree signed, “The Panther Master’s house is just over the yonder hill.” Then, turning, she catapulted toward her home.
“Wait!” the young man called. “Thank you, Maid MangoTree. My name is Sun Eagle.” MangoTree clutched the name to her heart even as scalding tears obscured her vision. The beating she knew she would receive was nothing compared to the reality of what she’d allowed to happen to her. And, worse still, nothing would come of it. He was doomed to marry the Accursed One!
I stood upon the path leading to the stream. Memories of my first meeting with Sun Eagle danced giddily within my head. In my hand, I clutched a small token, one I desperately longed to bestow.
Sun Eagle had remained in Redclay Village for several weeks now. Although I only glimpsed him from a distance, I knew all about the events that were transpiring concerning him. Tomorrow, he would embark upon the momentous Rite of Passage ceremony that would catapult him into adulthood. I could not rid myself of a sense of foreboding. If he returned with a slain beast, then he would draw ever closer to his wedding day. My jaw tightened with anger. He was strong! Why must he marry someone cursed? My hands trembled, and, for fear I would drop my token, I concealed it in the folds of my dress. Being fourteen, I was more than eligible for marriage. Also, there was no use deceiving myself, I needed to escape my home.
“Maid MangoTree!” It was him! He bounded toward me, his light gait almost making it appear as if he were flying. I smiled. Sun Eagle was a truly fitting name. As he approached, he smiled and held out his hand.
“Hello,” I signed. “I—“
My fingers faltered. What could I say?
Sun Eagle took my hand. “I have seen you on this path everyday,” he said. “Have you heard what I must do tomorrow?”
I smiled. “Slay a beast,” I signed quickly.
“Exactly.” His eyes twinkled. “Do you think I’ll slay a Faerie Beast?”
“You will bring back a wonderful prize,” I signed confidently. Then, before I truly stopped to think, I withdrew the token from my dress.
The clay bead was awash in red, orange and yellow pigment, and it bore the painting of a graceful mango tree with luscious clusters of fruit. I am not a wonderful painter, yet I was truly proud of my name marker. If Sun Eagle accepted it, I would have professed my need for him, and, although some might not believe me, my love. I pressed the bead into his hand.
Sun Eagle blinked in shock and stepped backward. “I—I do not understand.”
I blinked rapidly and signed, “It is a symbol. I give you my loyalty, best wishes and—“
“I—I fear you somehow misinterpreted—“
I reached for his hand. Frantically, I attempted to close his fingers around the bead.
Gently, Sun Eagle withdrew himself from my grasp. His face was filled with pain. “You are not mine to wed,” he murmured. “I am sworn to another, and, MangoTree, I love her. She is noble, kind and--” Tears sprang to his eyes.
Dazed, I watched as Sun Eagle dropped the bead back into my quivering hand. I had worked so hard, had labored in the dead of night while Father slept. As the tears coursed down Sun Eagle’s cheeks, roiling anger surged within me. “I do not want your pity!” My agitated fingers ravished the air as I signed. He had been deceived! How could someone marked for death be worthy of love? She, who had the love of a sister, whose father loved her in ways that were obvious for all Redclay Village to see. Surely, she was singled out by our god for a reason. Did I not deserve love, too? Sun Eagle had shared a meal with me. Did that not prove he had a kind heart, one that could grow to love someone else? No! He was too bound by tradition. He had made a fool of me!
Turning away, I began to run. I do not know where I planned to go, but I did not want to stop. As I ran, I flung my name marker as far away from me as I could.
“Where are you running too, my dear?” That exceedingly gentle voice crashed upon my ears in a roaring torrent. I stumbled and fell in a crumpled heap. Wolf Tongue bent over me. His eyes glittered, and, in his hand, he clasped my name marker. “Do you not know who I am? I am a High Priest, sweet one. It is foolish to run from your problems. Ask for assistance, and it will be given. Our god helps those in need.”
I did not like the way Wolf Tongue spoke those words, yet, they were true. After all, doesn’t a god help his people? Trembling, I allowed Wolf Tongue to help me to my feet. Hesitantly, I signed, “High Priest, I—I tried to give someone—I know it was wrong, but—“
Gentle laughter interrupted my faltering efforts. “Why do you attempt to explain yourself?” His hand reached forward and cradled my scarred right cheek. “Lovely, I am here,” he murmured. “That boy is unworthy of you, but there is a way you can make him regret his rejection.”
I cringed at Wolf Tongue’s touch. Although it was gentle, there was a hardness about his hands. Almost as if, (but, that was not possible), his hands were claws. I tried to pull away, but his grip tightened. Despite my fear, I longed to hear his advice.
Wolf Tongue released me. From his priestly robes, he extracted a glittering knife. The knife was wrought from stone, but the blade was sharper than any I had ever encountered. The High Priest leant forward. “Just a simple slice on a cord,” he crooned. “No one will see you, and you will grow powerful. You will be a goddess in your own right. I will intercede on your behalf, and our god will give you courage.”
Just as the mango trees in the grove tremble at the onslaught of vicious storms, I felt shaken to the very marrow of my bones. If I submitted to Wolf Tongue’s suggestion, Sun Eagle would pay for not accepting my token. Yet, I did not think of that alone. I thought of something more important. I would be protecting him in the long run. He would not have to marry someone who would only bring him trouble. With this final thought, my hand closed over the stone knife.
The slice through the cord that secured Sun Eagle to the moorings of the mortal world was embarrassingly easy. However, the knife that sliced into my own heart would never leave me, and the hand that wielded the tool throbbed with a persistent ache. Although I repeatedly attempted to move my fingers, nothing happened. The hand was damaged beyond repair.
After I broke the cord, a harsh wind wrenched the knife from my hand, and I found myself standing upon a jutting stone, the Place of the Teeth. The center stone stank of a fetid odor, and I gasped as I realized I stood in a pool of blood. Wolf Tongue towered above me, a look of exhilarated triumph on his face. He spun around and around, dirtying his bare feet in the blood, as if in a drunken dance. Harsh laughter erupted from his throat. In my ears, the laughter changed into strange howls.
“Very good,” he said, “but, I am afraid there is room for only one god in this demesne.” His handsome face melted into that of a ravenous wolf. Retching, I turned and began to run.
Always the incessant pain! Always the never-ceasing chase! MangoTree bolted down deep ravines and up steep hills. Her breath erupted in feral gasps of agony. Wild grasses and plants thrust forth snake-like tendrils, occasionally sending the girl sprawling. Having no time to think, she simply pushed herself upward, her useless hand providing no purchase, and the other tearing clumps of earth in her frenzy to escape. Always behind her in the darkness rang earsplitting howls of laughter.
Voices tore into MangoTree’s mind, the accusing rasp of her Father, “You unleashed the Beast’s wrath upon us, girl! If you’d only told me of your mother’s deceit!“
The harsh cries of the god, “This game grows tiresome, little slave! You cannot escape!”
And, above them all, a frightened young man’s cry of terror and loneliness, “Can no one hear me?”
MangoTree pelted onward, her heart beating so loudly, she was astounded she could hear anything. Suddenly, another sound burst upon her ears. This noise resembled the pitter-patter of paws. It was not the relentless gouging tattoo of the Wolf’s claws, the defilement of the earth occurring as he pursued his prey, but a measured beat, almost like the drums that called the men to war. Yet, the padding was not ferocious, only persistent. A voice suddenly broke through the others, temporarily drowning them out, “MangoTree, turn to me!”
How gentle yet authoritative was that voice! The girl clenched her teeth and continued running. She had been deceived before. In her dreams, and, sometimes upon waking, she had heard that same voice. But, nothing had ever changed. No deliverance. No alleviation of pain.
A jutting rock seemed to jump into her path. MangoTree toppled forward with a thunderous crash. A monstrous bolt of pain battered her right leg. Desperately, she tried to stand as she had done so often before. At any moment, the Wolf would be upon her.
“Child, dear lost child, I am here.”
That voice was right beside her now. She knew it was not Wolf Tongue who spoke. Knowing that she was incapable of signing, she desperately tried to speak. The sheer absurdity of this would have made her laugh if that were possible.
Child, turn your head to the right.
Words entered directly into her mind. Tentatively, MangoTree obeyed. What other choice did she have? Her vision suddenly cleared as if a cleansing light had washed away an obscuring veil. By her side stood a large Hound, snow-white with silky fur. Golden light poured from him in a dizzying array of beauty. MangoTree gasped in awe. Who are you?
I am the Lumil Eliasul, the One Who Names All Names. I pursue all living things. I will never stop pursuing though many ignore me.
MangoTree shuddered. She saw herself reflected in the Hound’s golden eyes. He knew all things pertaining to her. I—I was only concerned for him! I didn’t mean—Her mind reeled as she sought to justify herself.
I know who you truly are, MangoTree. Your true name is known by me, for I knew you before you were conceived.
Wh-Why are you here? Please, leave me alone. I am unworthy. I-I left that child in the High Priest’s arms. My mother was killed because of me. I—oh, Sun Eagle! Forgive--
The Hound lowered himself onto his belly. His tail wagged, and he flicked his tongue outward, kissing MangoTree’s damaged hand. Of course you are unworthy, but so is everyone. I care not about that. I will make you into who you were meant to be.
Warmth trickled into MangoTree’s hand, and she suddenly realized that she could move her fingers. Absurdly, she longed to pet the Hound. But, such a dignified creature would surely not permit her, the lowest of the low, to touch him.
What are you waiting for, MangoTree? It’s a well-known fact that dogs loved to be scratched behind the ears. The Voice was filled with good-natured humor. Floodwaters of excitement burst upon MangoTree’s soul, collapsing the barriers of fear and hatred. Her healed hand stroked the Hound’s majestic head, burying itself in the silky fur. Without thinking, she rose to her feet, suddenly realizing that all her pain was gone. With her hands buried in that beautiful fur, she began to walk, the pitter-patter of the Hound’s paws just ahead of her as she followed in his steps.
Ten Years Later
“MEEEOWL! Wet! Wet!” A plaintive cry burst upon my eardrums as I rounded the bend. Ahead of me, a large river cascaded over pointy rocks. Foamy swirls of spray lapped at the feet of a bedraggled yet dignified-looking man. “Is there no end to the humiliation?”
I peered closely at the stranger. He was executing a manic dance as he stepped from the water’s edge. I grinned at him.
The man stopped his frenzied activity and stared at me. “Another mortal, eh? Don’t suppose you need any assistance, do you?” His tone implied that he wouldn’t oblige even if I did, but his expression said otherwise.
“What do you want?” I signed.
The man blinked. “Lights above! Not you, too!”
It was my turn to blink, and I pointed to the man’s dripping clothes then at myself. “River?” I moved my fingers in a rowing motion. “You want to cross? You are afraid?” I made my hands shake as if from fear.
“Afraid? Me?” The man threw back his shoulders and stepped forward. His movements were graceful, and something in his nature seemed almost animal-like. “You address Sir Eanrin, my girl, Chief Poet of Rudiobus! I fear no one. Yet, time is short, and I must find the house upon the hill. There is no canoe here.”
I stepped forward and moved my hands in a swimming motion. “The god of this land has forced me to stay here. Yet, he cannot stop me from doing what I am told to do by my true master. I will help you.”
“By Hymlume’s grace, girl! I do not understand what you are saying!” Frustration and fear thinned his tenor voice to a plaintive cry. “The princess even now waits at those confounded stones. I must—“
I placed my hands on the man’s shoulders. Relinquishing him, I moved my hands in swimming motions. Then, I crouched on the riverbank.
“What? Am I to ride across on a mortal’s back?” The man ground his teeth in frustration. “You offer yourself like a common mule?”
I grinned at him and shrugged. After another moment of hesitation, the man simply vanished. By my side sat a large orange tomcat with a plumy tail. The next instant, he had leapt onto my back, his claws clutching my dress. I entered the water, which closed over me in a warm embrace. Indignant meows filled my ears, but they were soon drowned by the cascading water and the pitter-patter of familiar feet. A white shape sped along beside me, providing guidance as golden light from the Hound’s coat lit a Pathway that I could follow.
Soon, I reached the other side of the river and deposited the cat-man onto the bank. Instantly, the cat disappeared, and the bedraggled man stood before me. Once again, he launched into his desperate dance. “Wet again! It’s unbearable!”
I raised my fingers in a wave. Already, the river was pulling at me, drawing me back to my post. Although many rivers, (one in particular), are lustful creatures, this one was simply mischievous. However, it obeyed its master, the Wolf Lord, and I knew I had to return to the other bank. A memory flashed through my mind of the ravenous wolf pacing before me, lunging for my throat. He’d overtaken me after several minutes the first day I’d followed the Hound. But, try as he might, the Beast could not touch me, for the Hound created a barrier that could not be penetrated. The Beast had stared at the Hound, then beyond him at me. Hatred flashed from his eyes, threatening to swallow my very soul. Transforming back into Wolf Tongue, he had raised his hands, forming a transparent barrier beyond which I could not step. “Stay here, sweet one,” he hissed, saliva dripping from his jaws. “One day soon the paltry protections that surround you will fade, and then, you will be mine.” He had vanished, returning to Redclay and, I knew, wreaking untold havoc upon all the land.
I reentered the water and began to swim once more. “Where are you going, gentle maiden?” The man-cat’s voice travelled after me, but it faded more and more.
On the riverbank, I stood behind the Hound and waited for further instructions. Words entered my mind: Well done, Knight MangoTree. Stay here, and wait for the one who will speak your true name. I must journey back to the Place of the Teeth, but I will also be with you.
Before my eyes, the Hound transformed into a glorious man. He towered majestically over me and clasped my hand. I felt something round fall into my palm, a bead colored in glorious shades of red, orange and yellow pigment. The graceful mango tree shone with a brilliant luster. My name marker! Always trust me, MangoTree, and you will bear brilliant fruit unlike any ever created before.
I smiled and nodded. However, I would not deceive myself. I could not bear fruit alone. I knew to whom this token rightfully belonged. “Take it, gracious Lumil Eliasul. Please take it and keep it safe.” I signed these words with pleading gestures.
The Lumil Eliasul nodded, joy radiating from him. He clasped my name marker in his hand. Then, he turned to journey toward a dark mountain. Quickly, I signed, “Will I ever see Sun Eagle again? How long must I remain here?”
My Master turned to me. Your story is no longer intertwined with Sun Eagle’s, my child, but you will not be here very long now. I have much for you to do if you are willing.
Once you have been hounded down, there is no other way to live, for you are a servant living an abundant life. I nodded and watched my Master disappear into the shadows. The reverberation of his Hound’s feet gradually faded away as he pursued someone else. I sat down to wait for the one who knew my true name.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, miss.” MangoTree stared into the face of a beautiful young woman. The woman’s features were ravaged by weariness, yet peace radiated from her as well. “I am journeying to the Village of Redclay, and I nearly stumbled over you. Are you all right?”
MangoTree nodded. She knew this woman, and, for a moment, she longed to run away. She had wronged this lady beyond reckoning. Yet, she knew she must remain where she was. “I am well,” she signed. “I am—“
“Wait. I remember you.” The woman inclined her head, dark brown hair brushing her cheeks. “You were going to carry a water pail for me when we were little, but a man stopped you.”
“My father,” MangoTree signed.
The woman nodded. “Thank you. No one else even offered.” Turning away, the woman prepared to continue walking. Then, she reached for MangoTree’s hand. “Your face,” she murmured. “You know him, too, don’t you? The Lumil Eliasul?”
The women stared at one another, their faces scarred by unspeakable pain, yet their eyes reflecting contentment. “I know both of them,” MangoTree signed, “the Wolf Lord and my Master.”
“Yes,” the woman murmured. “I know them both, too. My Master said I would encounter someone who had known Amarok before reaching the village. You are her.”
Although the name was unfamiliar, MangoTree knew to whom the lady was referring, and she also knew, without knowing how, that his power had been broken. “Please. Are you the one the Lumil Eliasul told me to wait upon? The one who knows my true name?”
The woman nodded and peered into MangoTree’s eyes. MangoTree knew the woman glimpsed the truth, that in her mind’s eye, she saw a young girl kneeling by a stake upon which was tied a cord. But, the lady’s strong hand touched MangoTree’s lips. “Your true name is Forgiven,” she murmured. Then, she glided away toward Redclay Village, toward a reunion for which she so desperately longed.
MangoTree gasped as a sweet, heady taste replaced the bitter bile that had always clung to her tongue. All around her, she felt the earth shift, as if it, too, had been unbound. Her mouth opened, and, words poured forth in a melodious torrent:
“I praise the One who Names all Names!
I am Lumil Eliasul’s, and he is mine.
I will not be moved.
As the mango tree’s strong roots dig themselves into the soil,
I will stay grounded within the love of the One who sat me free!”
The road ahead would be torturous at times, she knew, yet she was prepared. The One who kept her name marker also held her in the hollow of his hand. MangoTree journeyed toward a stone hut and a waiting father. Her true name was Forgiven, and she would strive to emulate that name. She was a servant, yet she had never been more free.