“Old story, new story; tall story, true story…”
The words echoed around the canyon, piercing as an eagle’s cry, thrilling as a coyote’s call. Akiowa’s heart leapt. The Storyteller!
Hands trembling with excitement, she hurried to round up the goats, hoping to pen them quickly so she could rush down to the village in time to sit close to the spear. Once, when she was small, in the happier times before she was seized by the tribeless men and sold to slavers, she’d sat with her father only an arm’s length from the spear. Magic had purled from it as the Storyteller wove her tales. Magic that glittered like sparks from a fire, but fell as soft as snowflakes on her skin, with scents of honey and woodsmoke, earth and stream. Oh, to be so close again.
But the goats refused to come at her call, and her broken leg had mended badly, slowing her further. By the time she’d herded the flock into their pen and fastened the gate, then limped her way to the village, the whole tribe was gathered before the headman’s tent, abuzz with expectation. No room near the spear, where the headman, clothed in mountain lion skins, sat with his shaman wife in her cloak of condor feathers, smouldering bark cloying the air around them. No room anywhere save at the edge of the crowd, and three times Akiowa was pushed away before she found a place she was allowed to sit.
The Storyteller was exactly as Akiowa remembered – wizened and ages old, her face lined and creased, her copper-coloured skin as fragile as faded autumn leaves. But she stood erect, the spear raised high above her head. The spear which held Akiowa spellbound. Its shaft was a wood unknown in the plains, so her father had said: black as deepest midnight, polished and glowing, straight and sturdy. Also unknown, the point’s metal: it shimmered and dazzled like silver, but was harder and stronger than iron.
Charms and talismans dangled from the spear. Mother-of-pearl and moonmilk stones, gossamer cloth, feathers of black-winged eagles and scarlet songbirds, pelts of racoon and winter fox. Brightness and darkness, and all the stories of the world, twined around it.
The Storyteller waited as the tribe settled. When all were silent, she thrust the spear into the hard ground. The clamour began.
“Old story! The Mountains of Mist,” shouted a man.
“Tall story! The Plants that Walked,” yelled another.
Calls and shouts from all sides – stories requested, demanded, begged. From men, women, children; even the babes in arms pinched and prodded till they cried aloud.
The Storyteller remained still. Not everyone had spoken.
“New story!” said the headman. “The Brave and Honourable Chief.”
“True story!” said his wife. “The Wise and Gentle Woman.”
The tribe hushed in expectation. These two had to be the missing voices, and the Storyteller would surely choose one of them.
But the Storyteller remained motionless, waiting.
Everyone looked around, wondering who had failed to speak. Then the clamour began again, men, women, children, babes; the headman and shaman angry now. Calls, yells, cries sent into the sky, returning with the canyon’s echo, filling the air with tumult. Still the Storyteller waited.
Fearful, hardly daring to ask, Akiowa at last whispered into the noise. “Story old or new, tall but never true. The Slave Girl Who Finds Happiness.”
The Storyteller raised her hand. Silence, sudden as lightning. “Old, new, tall and true,” she said, her voice bright, strong. “The Slave Girl – ”
“The goats!” shrieked a woman. “The goats have escaped!”
Akiowa lay curled on her side, pain knifing into her at every breath. The herd’s escape was her fault – in her haste, she hadn’t properly closed the pen. The goats had wandered: two had fallen to their deaths, three were missing. Enraged, the headman and his wife had beaten Akiowa more brutally than ever before.
Dimly, through the pain, she saw a figure approach. The Storyteller knelt beside her. With fingers gentle as snowflakes, burning as sparks of fire, she traced the blows, across Akiowa’s shoulders and back, her legs and arms and chest.
“Your body is too broken, child. We cannot heal it. You are dying.”
Akiowa felt the truth of it, and was glad.
“Don’t you wish to live?” asked the Storyteller.
“Not here. Not so wretched.”
“But if you could find happiness?”
“If. Yes. But there’s no happiness for a slave.”
The Storyteller shook her head. “Too young to long for death. That’s for the old and tired, who cannot die.” She took Akiowa’s crippled hand, curled her broken fingers around the spear. “Time for dying,” she said, and covered Akiowa’s hand with her own.
Lightning flamed from the spearhead, then came darkness.
Slowly, the darkness lifted; Akiowa saw again. And she quaked in shock and confusion and terror, for she was looking down on wizened hands, her hands, and kneeling beside a dying slave girl, whose eyes were those of an old, tired woman.
“What have you done?” cried Akiowa.
“Hush, child. Do not fear,” said the girl who was once the Storyteller, her voice harsh with pain, bright with serene contentment. “Now you will live and be happy. The spear will guard and guide you, and keep you alive as long as you wish. Longer than you might wish.” She coughed; blood spattered the spear.
“We must change places again. I cannot let you die in my stead.”
“I cannot return, even if I desired it.”
“But I’m no Storyteller,” said Akiowa, afraid of the new life she’d been given, of the payment that might be due. “I know not the stories.”
“The spear will give you the stories. Tell me one now. Tell me The Old Woman Who Wanted to Die.”
Fear and distress held Akiowa, but the spear filled her mind and mouth with the old woman’s story, and it poured from her. And when at last the tale was done, she remained kneeling beside the girl’s broken body; remained as day crept towards night, remained until the moon set and the slave girl breathed her last, a smile on her young lips and in her old eyes.
Then Akiowa stood, spear in hand, and walked away to find happiness.