My feet pounded the leaves of the jungle as I ran past the trees.
"You will regret this!" screamed Naylou. I laughed and scrambled up a tree.
Truth be told, a part of me was afraid of her wrath.
—But a bigger part enjoyed the feeling of watching her angrily chase after me, her ebony face purple with berry slime.
"I'll catch you Anaya, and when I do, you'll wish you'd never been born!" she shouted.
"That is likely true, but first, you must catch me!" My leafy ankle bracelet caught on a branch and snapped. I grimaced but continued to climb the massive tree. My sister had given me that bracelet only this morning. She would be sad that it had broken already.
Naylou was my worst enemy. She was always bossing me around, pretending that just because she was the cousin of the chief, she could treat the rest of us like dirt. I found out that she liked to sneak into my home and steal our dried fish, just to feed to her monkey, so I rigged the pantry door with a bucket of banana berry mud slime.
She wasn't happy.
I reached for the branch of another tree and quickly pulled myself into the cover of leaves, bringing my knees up to my chest and resting for a beat on the branch.
Naylou was too fat and stiff to scramble up after me very quickly. I took this chance to inhale a deep breath to ease my burning lungs and then sprung away from that tree.
She let out a frustrated groan. "I hate you!"
My legs curled around the trunk of a tree and I swung from a thin branch once I saw that my pursuer had reached the top of my previous tree.
Once again, my feet were pounding the earth. The scent of rain, dirt, and flowers was strong in the air, but I was focused only on the next steps in front of me.
I suddenly tripped over a barely-concealed root and heard a crack in my leg, followed by searing fire. "Ah!"
The panic in my chest as I fell hurt worse than my leg did. I couldn't run home to Maraya, my little sister, and ask her to help me—I couldn't even walk. Naylou would catch me for sure.
I heard her heavy-footed steps behind me and turned to look at her.
Hands on her hips, she tried to hide her hyperventilating with a gaping scowl. "Looks like I caught you."
I licked my dry lips. "Don't," I pleaded, her earlier words in my brain. When I catch you, you'll wish you'd never been born. I knew by the cold cruelty in her dark eyes that she would go through it.
"What's the matter? Scared?" She folded her arms and stepped closer.
"No. I just think you need to be the kind of person you pretend to be when the elders watch," I replied bitterly. "Be the person you brag about."
Her jaw clenched and her wide nose wrinkled in distaste. "I've had enough from you!" She sent her leg flying towards my broken one.
She kicked, clawed, and even bit at me, but I was defenseless. All I could do was wait. And wait, and wait, and wait.
During the pain, a bird chirped joyously, as if it were either oblivious to my pain, or mocking it.
"Hey! What's going on?!" a man's angry voice sounded. behind me. His voice had a slightly different accent to it, like he was from a different tribe. I couldn't place it; I'd never left my tribe before.
I coughed from my broken position on the ground and grimaced. Blood dripped from my lips.
"I—uh—she's a thief!" Naylou accused.
If my ribs hadn't felt like they were wrapped in flames, I would have barked out a laugh.
He ignored her and crouched beside me. "I am going to help you," he promised. His accent was slower than that of my own people's, and clearer, too. Outside of that though, he looked normal.
I couldn't respond, but my heart pulsed with fear. I didn't know him. I'd never seen him before in my life. He wasn't even from my tribe! Where was he taking me? Certainly not to his tribe, right?
I tried to protest but my voice failed and the effort made me black out.
"Head injury. . . Unconscious."
". . . So sorry. . ."
My eyes flickered open and I gasped.
I watched the ceiling above me and the blurriness of my vision slowly cleared, showing the thatched hay roof of the Healer's hut.
My body felt sore as I remembered what had happened.
I slowly tried to push myself up but stopped when a sharp pain shot through my wrist. I groaned and cradled it,
"Are you okay, Anaya?" asked a young girl from beside me—Felice, the Healer's oldest daughter. She wrung the fabric of her leather dress nervously.
"Great," I croaked, then realized how dry I was. "Water."
She handed me a hollow gourd. I drank it greedily.
"How long was I. . ."
"Unconscious? Nearly dead? Allll day yesterday and half of today!" chipped Felice's little sister. Her hair was frizzy and pulled back in thin rows of braids, and her hands waved as she spoke.
I tried to stand.
"No, no, no! Meme said not to let you stand. Your leg needs plenty of time to heal and you may have cracked a rib," protested Felice. She still wrung the fabric of her dress, but her voice sounded more confident now than it had only minutes ago.
I pulled a smile on. "Okay, I'll stay."
The door of the hut opened and the Healer walked inside, her many dark, thin braids twisted into a thick bun behind her head, not unlike a bee's hive. I bowed my head.
"Thank you for your help, Healer."
She blinked slowly as she replied, "You are welcome. I am glad to see you awake." Her arms were full of baskets stuffed with herbs, mushrooms, and vegetables from the tribe's garden. She bustled out of the room and returned with a gourd full of hot soup.
I accepted it without question. I knew from past experiences that her medicines were better consumed without any knowledge of what they were. They worked, and that was all that mattered.
It tasted like clay and spoiled bananas.
She reached for a staff from the corner of the room and handed it to me. "Here. I had this made for you while you were asleep. Use it to walk until the next full moon at least."
"Naylou didn't break your leg, did she?"
I shook my head. "I did that." I tilted my head with furrowed brows. "How did you know?"
She smiled. "Naylou is not fast enough to catch you. She would have had to have taken advantage of a prior injury or disadvantage of your own."
"I tripped on a log," I admitted bashfully.
She barked out a laugh and stepped back. "Stand slowly. I must make sure you can walk with the staff.
I scooted to the edge of the cot, careful not to jostle my broken leg, and put my weight on the staff. I was able to take a few slow, shaky steps, but that was enough for her.
"You got this. You are strong," she said cheerfully. "Now go home. Your sister is worried about you. I could barely keep her out of here!"
I smiled tiredly and hobbled out of the Healer's hut, inhaling fresh, non-herb-scented air, seasoned with rain, trees, fruits, and flowers.
The bamboo doors of my hut came into view, framed by vines that Maraya had carefully trained to grow around the hut. She was very artistic. I was more practical.
Most of my practicality likely came from being forced to raise Maraya alone after our parents were killed in a tribal war. We had no family and the other villagers were too busy caring for their own children to worry about us, so I'd been forced to grow up. I hunted, cooked, cleaned, and fulfilled the roles of both mother and father at only nine. I still felt the ache of their death, even though it's been ten years since it happened.
"Maraya?" I called. The door swung open and her wide eyes met mine.
"Anaya!" she cried. She looked as if she wanted to hug me, but wasn't sure if she should. ". . . Where are you hurt?"
"Everywhere," I deadpanned. "Just. . . pat my hand. Or kiss my cheek. They're fine—And watch my left hand, it's sprained."
Her forehead creased and I saw tears fill her eyes. "Oh, sister. . . I'm so, so sorry."
I shook my head and rolled my eyes. "It's not your fault. Naylou is a—" I cut myself off and smiled with obvious force. "Have you eaten today?"
She nodded. "Yes. A man came and gave me fruit! I've never seen him before, Anaya! I was so worried and scared at first, but he was so nice, and he told me where you were and that you were okay, and oh, imagine my shock. I thought I'd faint! I really did! When I saw you, I thought I'd seen the face of death." She sniffed. "You looked so pitiful. I don't think I've ever seen you pitiful before. I'll kill Naylou for this!"
I leaned on my staff and kissed her forehead. "I'm fine—I promise. Just. . . banged up."
Her eyes widened again. "I fixed up the stool and made banana and passion fruit soup for you."
I felt exhausted as I followed her.
The next day, I awoke feeling somewhat refreshed, but still sore and bruised.
Maraya cooked breakfast and handed me a small rice cake topped with banana pieces. I thanked her and she sat on the floor to eat at my feet.
Suddenly, I heard drums.
My mind flashed to the night of our parents' death, but I forced the thought away. These weren't warning drums.
I exhaled and sat my bowl on the floor before grabbing my staff and pushing myself up.
"Wait, let me help." She stuck an arm under mine to help balance me.
Bushes rustled as we made our way slowly to the center of the village.
Many people were gathered. The drums continued for a while longer before stopping. Our chief strode up to address the crowd.
"My people! Thank you for coming. I want to ask that unmarried women over the age of Becoming stand in a row here." He gestured beside him. "All others can leave. Expect your women home by the end of the day."
Murmurs rippled through the crowd and were reflected in my sister and I. The age of Becoming was thirteen, when a woman was considered old enough to marry.
We stood in the line.
I watched as people left. Some lived in huts in trees, some lived in homes they dug under the ground, and others—like us—lived in regular huts in the jungle.
The chief walked to the end of the line with a man in a decorated mask. He gestured to several of the women, skipped a few others, and worked his way up the line that way.
He paused in front of me and hesitated before gesturing towards me.
I blinked curiously.
He continued on.
When the odd man had finished, the drums sounded and we were told to return home. Only the girls who had been chosen could return.
So the next day, I hobbled in on my staff and leg. I was the last girl to arrive and I felt frustration tangle inside my stomach.
Naylou was one of the girls who'd been chosen. For what, I didn't know. There were six girls left, but Maraya was not among them.
Today, the man spoke.
"Greetings!" he called, "I have journeyed from the Tu'tsana tribe north of here. I search for a wife."
The Tu'tsana. . . My throat constricted. This was the very same tribe who had murdered my parents.
The girls turned to each other and began to murmur. Being the hermit that I was, I had no one else to express my shock to, so I stayed silent.
He cleared his throat and the speaking stopped. "Today I will meet personally with each of you until I find the right woman."
I was both surprised and disheartened. No one wanted to marry a Tu'tsana. They were murderers. Many lives were lost when they raided our village, burned our huts and killed our people.
He went down the line and selected a girl only a few years younger than myself. Her hair had no braids; it hung stiffly in tight coils around her hips.
"Come." They walked into the jungle and stayed there for ten minutes. When they returned, her nose was high in the air and her expression distasteful. I didn't blame her.
He continued down the line until he reached Naylou, who looked the meanest of all. Her eyes were fierce as she trailed behind him and burned when she returned. Then she stormed away.
When he reached me, I gulped and slowly followed, afraid of what would happen.
We were silent until we reached the cover of the trees. Two stools sat facing each other on a leather blanket. He waited until I was seated before taking the seat across from me.
He studied me for a moment with his dark eyes. "You're hurt," he deducted smartly.
It took everything in me not to snort. "Yes," I answered calmly.
"How?" he asked.
His eyes narrowed for a small moment.
"There is more to it I think, but what I want to know is if it is true that you robbed the woman Naylou."
"No," I answered sharply. My next words were mumbled and quick. "But I dumped banana berry mud on her."
I sighed. "Naylou is the thief. She steals from my sister and I. I rigged a trap that dumped banana berry mud on her and she grew. . . offended." I clamped my lips shut. Naylou would be so mad if she found out what I told him.
He nodded. "Is your eye on any particular man for a mate?" he asked.
I fidgeted with a notch in my cane. "My priorities have been focused on other areas." Like making sure my sister grew up to be a great woman.
I met his reply with silence and inhaled, trying to calm my rising temper.
"Like what?" he repeated.
I felt hot anger flash inside my chest. "Like trying to keep my sister alive!"
His eyes widened momentarily. "Do you not have parents?"
I clenched my fist around my staff until my fingers turned white. "No. They died when I was little."
"I'm. . . sorry."
You should be.
I stayed quiet.
"Our previous chief was. . . not a peace-loving man. He did many things that I—that we—regret. My tribe looks to one day make amends."
Make amends—I couldn't help my snort, but quickly disguised it with a cough. "Yes, well, that's a noble thought." Stupid, though.
"Thank you. Our, uh, time is up."
He helped me stand.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
The next day, he took off his mask and I found that it was the man who'd carried me to the Healer's hut. Then he revealed something I hadn't been expecting, but felt dumb for not guessing.
"I am the prince of Tu'tsana and I'm looking to seek a wife to strengthen our relations. I wanted to see what each woman acted like without knowing who I was. I think I have an idea." His eyes cautiously strayed towards Naylou, whose expression of hatred from yesterday was complete adoration today.
He cleared his throat. "I know that my father wronged many of you, and believe me, I'm sorry. I'll work hard to rebuild the bridges he's burned. I'd like to start here." He gestured towards us. "Please don't let my father's reputation taint the entirety of the Tu'tsana tribe."
To say that I was surprised was an understatement. I should have seen it coming! Why else would he journey here for a bride?
"I can provide a great home for my bride, servants, animals, many foods, and even tutors. She shall have the very best."
The idea was attractive. . . and not just for me personally, but for Maraya.
—But was I willing to marry the son of the man who killed our parents for a life of luxury? The very thought sent a bitter taste to the back of my throat.
"If you are unwilling, you may leave now."
Three women left, leaving the woman with long, coily hair, Naylou, and myself.
I turned to leave but hesitated when I saw him watching me. I swallowed. He couldn't be bad—not after saving me and caring for Maraya while I was at the Healer's.
It was stupid, but I stayed.
The faintest of smiles raised his lips.
Naylou batted her eyes at the Prince. He looked at her and shook his head.
The chief raised his staff towards her and gestured towards the jungle. "Go home, Naylou."
"But—I'm your cousin! He can't refuse me!"
The prince raised dark eyebrows. "Actually, I can."
She gasped before turning and storming off.
I inhaled deeply, breathing in the familiar crispness of the jungle, painted lightly with the sweet blossoms of Spring.
"Final decision, Prince?" murmured the chief.
I closed my eyes. Did I want to be picked? I was happy that he kept me, but did I really want to be picked? Yes. I told myself it was for Maraya though, since I didn't know him well enough for it to be for him. She could have a better life. She wouldn't know what it was to go hungry anymore—and I wouldn't either.
"I choose Anaya."