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This story contains Suicidal thoughts, abandonment, heights, injury, starvation, child death, death
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About the Author: Andy Crawford is the author of two novels, the fantasy adventure “Sailor of the Skysea,” and fantasy satire “The Pen is Mightier.” He is busy at work on his third, a science fiction murder mystery. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.
By Andy Crawford
She knew the Storm was coming; she just didn’t know when. Meli had to stretch to access the tap—straining against her lifelines, she wrapped her lean left arm around the ovoid bulk of the floatplant. Made from the cylindrical core of a floatplant vine, sun-dried until stiff, the tap was bent double and wedged against the body of the plant to stem the flow. While her right hand clung to the wingwraith-claw anchor peg she had hammered into the thick wall of the plant, she expertly unbent the tap with her left, aiming the flow into the empty bladder she had wedged between her fourth and fifth fingers. Unable to see the flow around the curved bulk, she tapped rhythmically on the bladder until it was full, and re-bent the tap to stem the flow. Just as her shoulder could take no more, she relaxed and leaned back against a juvenile floatplant, feet braced against the hammock-like bundle of vines that snaked and weaved from plant to plant, keeping her cluster together. As she was taught so many seasons ago, she tentatively tasted the watery juice.
“Just a little sweet, a little astringent, perfect,” she said aloud. No one was listening, of course, but she voiced her thoughts out of habit.
Bitter juice signaled the end of a floatplant’s life, and the time for its vines to be cut and processed, bladders to be extracted, leaves to be stripped and dried, fruit to be picked, and chaff to be discarded to the Great Void below. She tied off the bladder with a length of vine-string, retrieved her anchor peg, and made her way across the vines.
The Storm was coming, and Meli wished she knew exactly when. Perhaps the crones at Ephemera, her birth-cluster, would know—she recalled that they had great calendars made from dried cowpelin skins, marking the days within the seasons, and the seasons between Storms.
“But Ephemera doesn’t float anymore, at least not as I remember it,” she mumbled.
How many Storms had passed since she left her birth-cluster? Since she was Exiled? It shouldn’t be so hard to remember, as infrequent as the Storms were. Two, she decided after a few moments of thought. Her first Storm, days after her Exile, in which she almost dove into the whirling vortex in despair, and then another, eighteen seasons later. Nine winters, and nine springs. And a third that she would face sometime this season, eighteen seasons after the last. More than thirty-six seasons of exile. The number shocked her—she couldn’t recall adding it up before.
“Every nine winters, and every nine springs,
Water, food, lifelines, everyone brings,
Farewell to your cousins, farewell to your friends,
For all those untethered, your memory ends.”
The children’s rhyme came out of her mouth unbidden. Farewell to your cousins, farewell to your friends... what was it like, to have family and friends? Would she ever touch someone, or even speak to someone, again?
Ephemera would have been scattered at the first Storm, as was the fate of all communities. Perhaps enough families, each one tethered to a floatplant, would drift to within sight or sound of one another to reform the community, but that was rare, according to the crones. More likely, the hundred-some-odd families lucky enough to survive the chaos of the Storm were scattered dozens of leagues distant through the Airsea, only to form new clusters with any survivors, often strangers, who happened to drift nearby.
But not for Meli—the terms of her Exile were clear... if she would live, she must live alone. She hid from the few families she saw drift by after the Storm. But the passing of the Storm didn’t always end the horror—she recalled, for weeks on end after the last Storm, seeing battered bodies of the unluckiest victims hanging from their lifelines on drifting floatplants, gnawed on by wingwraiths. She still recalled the worst of it, eighteen seasons before: the desperate cries from some poor wounded soul, hidden among the woven vines and hanging bodies of a passing floatplant. At first she thought it was a small child, but that wouldn’t make any sense—no one was foolish enough to have children after the eighth season past a Storm. A child needed to be strong, and a skilled climber, to have a chance at surviving the next one. Perhaps it had been a youngster of ten seasons or so, strong and agile enough to cling alone to the tethers and pegs of a floatplant without losing grip, but still young enough to have a child’s voice. Meli had overcome her fear of violating her Exile to try and reach the source of the cries, but the winds would not cooperate to put them within a bowshot before the noise had summoned a hungry wingraith, and the voice was abruptly silenced. Those cries had echoed in her head for nearly another season.
Few lived to see three Storms, she recalled, according to the crones and sages. She wondered if she would—would the coming storm batter her weary body to oblivion? Would her lifelines break, sending her tumbling into the Great Void below? Would her cached supplies break open and fall away, or spoil, dooming her to starve?
Life in the Airsea is preparation for the Storm, according to the old crones from her childhood. So said the Storm Laws—prepare, they said. The season prior to a coming Storm must be wholly devoted to obtaining, processing, and storing the food, drink, and supplies needed to survive it. She wished she could recall the names of the crones and sages who taught her about the Laws—most of the names she remembered from before the Exile she would banish from memory if she could. She would banish the names, and banish the faces, and especially banish the images of the broken lifelines dangling in the breeze; the broken lifelines that resulted in her Exile.
She shook off such memories. Prepare or die, the crones would say. So old the crones seemed to her then... if she had stayed, would she now be the crone for some child’s recollection?
She transferred her lifelines to higher vines, methodically climbing to the top of the largest floatplant. The transfer, one of the first skills children were taught, was done by rote—unclasp one deeklip, climb an arms-length up, clasp, then unclasp the second deeklip, climb another arms-length, and so on, until she stood on the crown of the largest floatplant. She surveyed her cluster, consisting of about thirty adult floatplants, vines woven together, that she had wrangled together as they drifted through the Airsea. She oriented herself by memory—she had attached as much of her cached food and water to the largest plant as she felt it would bear without sinking, planning to tether herself there as soon as she heard the first telltale cracks of thunder that heralded the Storm. A slightly misshapen floatplant marked one ‘corner’ of her cluster, and where she had started distributing the excess water, fruit, and dried meat she had gathered over the last season. She counted floatplants to find the next unladen plant to attach her latest full juice-bladder.
And then she broke the Law. In Ephemera, there was no law, not even the Storm Laws, higher than the Lifeline Laws—one must always be tethered to a vine, or an anchor, or another tethered person. Lifelines must never be cut—only unwoven. The lifeline of another is as sacred as their very lifeblood. Supplies and tools must be always be tethered—the Void below must not be fed. But transferring across the vines of her cluster was tedious, and it could take hours to get from one end to the other. Far easier to climb to the top and bound from crown to crown, and the Laws sometimes seemed as far away as her childhood.
As she attached the bundled, disconnected lifelines to her belt, memories of the first days of Exile came to her mind. “You are sentenced to be untethered,” the sage had declared, in front of the entire cluster. “Untethered from the people, and untethered from the cluster.” He had handed her a single tool—an old, blunted wingwraith-claw blade. And with nothing but that blade and the clothes on her back, she had been cast adrift—ordered onto three small floatplants, vines woven together, which were cut away from Ephemera’s cluster. Very carefully, an expert Grower had needled a minute hole in the smallest of the plants, instructing Meli to cut it away as soon as she started to sink. Just as the Grower pulled herself back across the gap to Ephemera, Meli’s tiny new cluster started to push away, ever so slowly, from the main cluster, propelled by the tiny jet of float-gas from the pinhole.
“You are untethered,” boomed the sage, across the gap. “You will be unseen and unheard, or you will die.” After a moment, the sage and the rest of the crowd turned their backs and transferred away, but two warriors had remained at the edge, bows in hand.
She had wanted to die. She had wanted to steer her cluster back and take the barbed arrows in her chest. Or sink away as one-third of her little cluster lost buoyancy. Or let go of the vines and see the Great Void up close.
But she had survived. “Untethered...” She had pondered this terrifying word. To be untethered was no better than death—perhaps even worse. No connection, no link, no community. But a part of her insisted upon survival. “What are my arms, if not two lifelines?” this part had told her. “What are my hands, if not two deeklips? As long as there is strength in my body, I am tethered.” With one of her wiry, five-fingered deeklips, she clasped a strong link to her tiny new cluster, and with the other, she stripped away vines to make a new lifeline with that wraith-tooth blade. The plants will be my neighbors, she had resolved.
Upon the crowns of her cluster, the memories faded away. One day her aging muscles would not be up to the task of leaping across the gaps, but this day, wrinkled and sun-blackened as she was, she felt as spry as ever, even laughing as she bounded from crown to crown. She worried little about stumbling—the vine bundles were woven thick between most of the plants, and she avoided those gaps in which they were sparse.
She wondered if this was how it felt to be a Surfacer, or a Platformer... and not for the first time, she wondered if these legendary people were real or only stories told by the crones and sages. Supposedly, long ago, their ancestors came from worlds beyond the Airsea, beyond even the Sky Above, worlds with endless Surface, and no Great Void below. They wore no tethers, once the birth-tether was cut away—living all their lives unconnected. Separated as Meli was from the traditions she was taught, this idea still made her shiver like a fearful child.
Skilled craftsmen, these former Surfacers, they had supposedly constructed great, floating false-Surfaces on which to live in the Airsea. They dipped balloons and constructed appendages far below in the Great Void to drink from the fire-gases, through which they stayed powerful, comfortable, and safe on their Platforms. But at some point these Platformers lost contact with the Surfacers—some say there was a great war—and lost their power, abandoning their Platforms and the fire-gases to live in the floatplant clusters. One sage had told Meli that this wasn’t quite true—not all the Platformers had left, and some still lived, drinking deeply of the fire-gases, on their great false-Surfaces leagues and leagues away in the Airsea.
But other sages had scoffed at these legends. “Is not the birth-tether proof that we have always lived among the clusters? That we have always been meant to live by knot and line, straight from the womb?” they had said.
Meli reached her target plant, climbed and transferred down, and secured the bladder to its vines. She spied a ripe vinefruit hidden among the weaves, somehow having avoided her last harvest, and popped it in her mouth, savoring the juicy sweetness and spitting the feathery seeds into her hand. She still kept to the seed rituals from her childhood when she returned to the crowns up top—a few whispered syllables, the meaning long forgotten, and the seeds cast into the Air above, caught by currents to one day grow into new floatplants and new clusters far away.
In the midst of her reverie she heard a distant bellow—a cowpelin. She turned to peer through the clouds, and after a few moments the floating grazer appeared. It was an old bull—truly massive, larger than a dozen of the floatplants for which it searched. Undulating fins along its great grey-yellow bulk propelled it leisurely through the Airsea, now aimed towards Meli’s own cluster. Two tiny eyes and a probing double-trunked proboscis were the only obvious features to distinguish the front of the creature from the back.
Should she try to dodge it? Small punctures in the gasbags of the floatplants at one end of her cluster might move it out of the way of the ungainly beast. But, slow as the cowpelin was, she didn’t think she could steer the cluster out of the way before it arrived. And such propulsion was risky—the sages said that floatplants had minds of their own, and were skilled enough to absorb or release the gases inside to stay at their preferred height if their burden was altered. But she had found that this skill of the floatplants was limited—Meli was worried that the remainder of her cluster might not be able to support the weight of the number of floatplants she would have to puncture to move them out of the way in time.
She estimated that she had more than enough dried meat spread through her cluster to survive, but she could always use more cowpelin skin to dry for garments, frame-bones for implements, and fat for fuel. So we will have a hunt, she decided. The enormous herbivore showed no sign of seeing her—skittish as the creatures were, they often reacted with fear towards any moving object that wasn’t another cowpelin... though a bull this large might be just as likely to react aggressively. She bounded over to her main floatplant, quickly transferred down to her store-anchors, and retrieved her bow, lines, and quiver. Worried that the creature might see her on top of the crowns, she transferred her way as quickly as she could through the woven vines of her cluster. On her way she grabbed her hunting lifeline—her longest, it stretched more than the circumference of her cluster, having taken her an entire season to weave together.
Finally she reached the edge of the cluster. She peered through the vines and saw that the cowpelin was just getting into range of her bow. But it was still too soon to shoot—a bull this large would have skin strong enough to resist all but the largest wingwraith’s claws, and it would need to be very close for her bow to penetrate. The shiny trunks of the proboscis quivered as they reached for the floatplants—equally equipped to drink fluids or steal the floatgas, an unspotted cowpelin was a terrible danger to occupied clusters. Fortunately, this one’s skin was taut, so it probably would only be after the juice.
“But this one won’t get the chance,” she whispered. She gauged the distance carefully and shot her bow twice in quick succession, careful to target the fat reserves on its midsection rather than the bulky gasbag. The bull bellowed and twisted, its spheroid body actually rippling as it tried to flex, and its trunks reaching futilely for the barbs now in its belly. Meli pulled tight the lines that trailed from her arrows, anchoring them to her cluster, and leapt outwards even as the beast continued its slow-motion flailing.
With a graceful mid-air pirouette, she grasped the top arrow-line in hand and braced against the lower one with her feet. Her extra-long lifeline snaked behind her, connecting her to her home. She spryly sidestepped across the gap on the arrow-lines until she reached the struggling animal. Despite the size of the creature, she was glad it was a bull—the females usually traveled in family groups, and would defend each other. But with a single cowpelin it was easy to stay out of the reach of its trunks, though climbing over its undulating fins, anchor-pin by anchor-pin, proved more of a challenge then she recalled from her last hunt, giving her a worrying suspicion that her strength might not be what it used to be.
She reached the top of the beast just as her lifeline started to stretch. She gingerly approached the cowpelin’s hump, just behind its ‘head’. Staying upright on top of the shuddering creature was a challenge despite the slowness of its movements, and Meli lowered herself to her belly, drawing the bone mallet and wraith-tooth chisel from her belt. Slowly, gently, she crawled forward over the hump that divided the head from the body. Cowpelin head-humps were built up thickly, especially by such an old bull, due to repeated impacts from dominance-fights during the mating seasons. The thicker the hump, the less sensation the animals seemed to have—and luckily, this bull still didn’t realize where on its body the intruder was. The trunks were just feet away now, flailing wildly—the only part of the beast that didn’t move like it was stuck in resin.
But it would definitely sense her in a moment—Meli would have to act fast. Her target was a bony depression between the small eyes of the cowpelin, which was unfortunately well within range of the powerful trunks.
She didn’t stop to think about it, and took a silent, flying leap. As the eyes swiveled upwards and the trunks twisted around towards her, she swung down the chisel and hammer, in one motion pounding with all her might. She wasn’t quick enough—a trunk wrapped around her calf, tossing her aside with bone-rattling force.
Her eyes locked onto the swirling browns, blues, and blacks of the Great Void below and she made a silent prayer to the ancestors. I’m so sorry, she thought, the Law was right. The lifeline is sacred, even for—
Her extra-long lifeline went taut and caught her, dangling several body lengths below the cluster. She twisted her neck around and the cowpelin bull was motionless, limply drifting with the cluster, tethered by the line arrows. She sighed in relief. Pulling herself back up to the cluster, arm-over-arm, would be a daunting task. Processing the hulk of the cowpelin would take days. But a Storm was coming, and she must prepare.
It wasn’t the thunder, this time. It was the wingwraiths that heralded the Storm. Even as she butchered the floating hulk of the bull—carefully cutting away the fat, sinews, and accessible skin before proceeding to the wide ribs and frame-bones—the wingwraiths feasted, as careful as Meli not to puncture the gasbag before they had their fill. She speared two wraiths through the wings before they learned to keep clear of her work, though the hulk was more than large enough for all to take what they desired.
But all at once, and long before the corpse was reduced to nothing more than the gasbag, the wingwraiths flew away. Where did they go, she wondered. How did they know the Storm was coming? Can they outfly the coming tempest? Or did they simply flee in terror out of some inhuman sense of what was coming?
She’d have plenty of time for such thoughts while she waited out the chaos. She abandoned her work nearly as quickly as the wraiths, dancing almost recklessly across the arrow lines back to her cluster. As fast as she could she changed lines and transferred up to the crowns to bound back to the central floatplant. The thunder cracked—first distant, then less so, and the wind picked up speed. Her hair flew in her face and she turned away, stumbling as she reattached the lifelines to transfer down. Even among the woven vines the wind blew strong, whistling through the gaps between plants.
And this was only the beginning. Her heart pounded, recalling the chaos of the two Storms she had survived. No Storm is alike, the crones had said. Some of the sages named past Storms—the Obdurate, the Scatterer, the Slayer of Memories. But they never could agree on the names, she recalled—the sages and crones all hailed from distant clusters, brought together by the chance of the previous Storm, with mythologies and traditions that were never quite the same.
She tethered her limbs to the plant, cursing the fact she only had two hands. “I am alone, but I have survived a Storm alone,” she declared. And as she was alone, her last arm could not be tethered tightly, and the bone would likely break in the Storm, as it did twice before. In Ephemera, and other clusters, there would be a designated Final Binder—a great honor, usually granted to a hunter of exceptional strength and skill. She chuckled darkly—alone, she was always the Final Binder.
She tested the reach of the other tethers—her legs and torso were bound tightly to the bulk of the plant, anchored to multiple pegs and attachments. Her right arm had limited flex—just enough to reach a few of the nearest juice-bladders and food bundles and bring them to her mouth. And her left was almost hanging free—as always, she left several tethers within reach, and she would weave her hand among them as much as she could, but it hadn’t been enough to save her bones before and she doubted it would be now.
But no matter, such was the Airsea. Such was the fate of a Final Binder.
The Storm arrived with a deafening thunderclap. Swirling clouds darkened the sky, lit up intermittently by flashes of lightning. It became difficult to breathe, though before she panicked Meli realized this was just her own anxiety in the darkness. She shivered as the winds stripped away her warmth, only to be hit by alternating blasts of humid heat.
A tightness hit her belly and her insides evacuated. Rain came, seemingly from all directions—a torrent one moment and a drizzle the next. It even tasted strange—oddly metallic, like blood. Or had she bitten her tongue?
Her floatplant shuddered and suddenly she sensed acceleration. For a moment, in the darkness, she thought she had been separated entirely to fall into the Void, but a momentary flash revealed that she was still attached, but with half her cluster gone already, vines flailing. She screamed in fear and triumph but she could not even hear her own voice over the tumult of the winds. All moisture from her mouth was stripped away and she reached for a juice-bladder, only to find that the nearest was gone. She almost laughed—the crones said to ‘prepare or die’, but how could one prepare for a Storm this strong? Luckily another bladder still hung firmly, and with one hand Meli untied it, almost losing her grip before drinking as deeply as she could.
Her left forearm started to cramp with the effort of gripping tightly to the vines she could not properly tie one-handed, and she defied the tether-knot training of her childhood to roll and weave her wrist into a knotted tangle.
The Storm doubled in intensity. Meli could no longer see anything but occasional flashes of lightning. The sound was constant and deafening—even the thunder was drowned out by the winds. Breaths brought ice-cold air to her lungs, or a choking, metallic moisture—sometimes both at once. She thought the chattering of her teeth might shake her skull to pieces. She may have screamed, may have laughed, may have sobbed.
She was cold. She was water. She was ice, and she was wind. And finally, she was darkness.
Meli awoke to the most magnificent sight she had ever seen. The bright pink sky, broken up by wispy clouds, melted to orange and red. Even the Great Void below was beautiful—luminous, circular spectra glowed on the dark clouds, and when she looked hard enough, the blackness shimmered to green and blue.
She turned her head to look around—three floatplants were all that remained of her cluster. Three, just like the three floatplants on which her Exile began. Her supplies: two large juice-bladders, and a dozen small ones; six bundles of dried fruit and leaves, and three bundles of dried meat.
Other floatplants drifted within visibility, large and small, trailing vines like a diaphonous head of hair. She had no idea if these had been hers; they were too far to make out any details that might identify them as the plants she had known for many seasons. She started to move, to reach for her bow in order to capture some of these plants as soon as they drifted within bowshot. But her muscles wouldn’t cooperate—every movement was agony.
Slowly and carefully, she tested her body. Every muscle—even her jaw and tongue—was sore, and she sensed damage in her thighs, stomach muscles, shoulders, and neck. But nothing permanent, she believed; even her left arm was, somehow, unbroken. A first, she realized—the first time she emerged from a Storm with no bones broken.
It was four days before she felt she was ready to climb and transfer. Nearly half of her remaining food was gone. With pain that was present but not overwhelming, she transferred up the much sparser vines to the crown of the central floatplant. In addition to the pain, it was much more difficult than usual to climb because of the fewer vines and anchor-points, and she had to stretch to the point of severe discomfort to reach from vine to vine. At the top, she dared not untether herself as she once did.
She surveyed her surroundings from the superior view of the crown. The sky was clear, and neither clouds nor mist hindered her sight. As she swiveled her head she could see dozens of floatplants, maybe hundreds—though most were so distant as to be mere blobs. None were within the range of her bow.
She didn’t worry. The winds of the Airsea were fickle, but they were never constant. If they didn’t bring her any new plants today, they would tomorrow, or the next day.
After twenty days, she was mostly healed from the storm, aside from a persistent twinge in her back. The winds had been kind as well—her tiny new cluster had expanded to nine floatplants, including two floatplants from her last cluster, bearing stores bundles she had placed. With the juice and fruit from both her recovered supplies and from the new plants, she no longer had to ration her supplies.
While this relieved her anxiety, it was another sort of bounty that recalled to her the spiritual teachings of her youth. “The Storm will bring death and chaos, but it also brings life,” one of the crones had told her. “You will never see a bloom like that of the days following a Storm.” Meli had seen the bloom twice before, but she still found it mesmerizing. Baby floatplants, ranging from the size of her fingernail to the size of her fist, floated by in droves. Thread-like vines coiled to weave together with the tiny vines of neighboring infant plants, only to have their weak link broken at the slightest shift in the breeze. She wondered hopefully if any of these new floatplants had grown from the feathered seeds she had ritualistically tossed into the air in the weeks before the Storm.
Behind the hordes of floatplant seedlings, newborn cowpelins followed. Undeveloped trunks swept the tiny floatplants into their maws, vines and all. The mother cowpelins trailed leisurely behind, quick to bellow and urge their offspring elsewhere upon sighting Meli atop her new cluster.
She didn’t mind—she had plenty of dried meat and supplies, and of course hunting newborns after the Storm had been forbidden by the elders. At that thought she snorted: “Since when do you care about what’s forbidden?” she asked herself. But she realized that since the Storm ended, it had felt like a relief to actually follow the Laws again—particularly the Lifeline Laws. She was warmed by the secure feeling of continuous connection, even if she was alone. Alone, but perhaps not completely. Connected, she felt like part of her small new cluster—she alone maintained the floatplants and protected them from the hungry cowpelins. As she transferred leisurely across her new home, she wondered why she had found the task so tedious before that she would discard the security of the Lifelines to leap untethered across the crowns.
The first survivors drifted by on the twenty-third day. Three adults and three children on a dozen loosely-woven floatplants. When the connections of the plants were visible, Meli’s eyes bulged in shock. Even from bowshots away, she could see that their vineweaves were substandard. Knotted clumsily, the tension was focused on the knots rather than spread along the length like the elegant weaves of her own vines. “So simple,” she muttered to herself. “Didn’t your sages and crones teach you the weaves and the knots?” Part of her wanted to cry out, to join her cluster to theirs. To violate the Exile—violate the Law. Would they know? Would stories still be told, perhaps having percolated across the Airsea, of the banished woman, old as a crone, to be killed on sight for her crimes?
She shook her head sadly to herself as she stood guard, loosely tethered, on the crown facing the approaching cluster. She clutched a long, curved-claw bladed spear in her hand, ready to cut any lines the intruders might send across. The six individuals on the other cluster met her eyes across the wide gap between them, and she shook her head broadly. “Airsea wind,” she prayed. “Don’t send them here. Don’t make me violate the Exile... don’t make me violate the Law.” Doubt niggled at her mind, but she suppressed it.
One of the men on the other cluster wielded a bow, held at the ready, while another gestured vigorously to Meli. What was he trying to say? He may have been shouting, but the winds were still strong enough to drown out distant voices. The man spread his hands wide, then brought them together abruptly, before pointing at his companion’s bow. He held up an arrow with a sprawling barb, and suddenly Meli understood—she had heard of such a maneuver as a child, but never seen one. Two clusters, separated by more than a single bowshot, might try to join together with bowshots from each side. One would shoot some sort of net—likely just several vines woven roughly together, while the other would shoot a barbed dart to catch it, and they would pull together. A difficult shot, but Meli thought it likely she could manage it. The doubt renewed its struggle against her barriers.
She battened it down again. Today she would follow the Laws, and her Exile, after so many years of violation. I am tainted, she thought to herself. I tainted myself, and I still must atone. She stood firm and ignored the gestures of the men on the other cluster. The wind shifted slightly and they started to separate. The gestures grew frantic, and Meli turned away. “It’s okay,” she said to herself. “They have supplies. They have each other. They don’t need me.”
So it went for another ten days—she spotted two more families, lucky enough to not drift close enough to her cluster to have their hopes dashed. Both times the doubts returned to scratch at her resolve. Maybe it’s time to end the Exile, something seemed to say to her. You could help them. You wouldn’t break their lifelines again.
But she resisted.
Her own cluster grew to thirteen plants. She even snagged a few baby plants, plentiful as they were after the Storm. No bigger than her palm, she wanted to see how they grew vines and fruit. Death and chaos, but also life... why were they so prevalent after a Storm?
A brief squall darkened the sky, and when it passed, the dissipating clouds revealed another cluster. Only four plants, this one could barely be called a cluster, Meli supposed, but it was occupied. If she thought the knots of the first cluster she encountered were clumsy, these were terrible. The vines were bogged together in knots as big as her fists, yet only the barest few vines connected them. Just one or two breaks could send the floatplants scattering to the whims of the Airsea.
As she stood guard once again, the doubts returned. The cluster drifted closer, and Meli could hear voices on the wind. The voices of children, and as she looked again, the figures on the floatplants were as small as youngsters of just eight or ten seasons. How can this be? Who would bear children that long after the last Storm? Who would doom them to the chaos of the next Storm without the strength to survive?
But survive these children did, evidently. They survived, but with no supply caches she could see, and with no adults to guide them. Doubts hammered at her mind like the Storm itself. I must not... it is death to the Void to assist those that are banished... I must not condemn these children.
The cluster came to within bowshot, riding uncertain winds. Blow away, children, she wanted to shout. Puncture your smallest floatplant, before you are doomed with me!
But something else, something more than the doubts came to her—the Storm Laws sprang in her mind. In the aftermath of a Storm, the Storm Laws matched even the Lifeline Laws in precedence, and what was the highest Storm Law? You will aid, you will assist, you will join, and you will survive. Only together will you rebuild after the Storm. What came higher, the Exile or the Storm Laws? The Lifeline Laws she violated so long ago, or the duty to aid, to join?
Before she could ponder it anymore, and before this cluster could drift away, she unlimbered her bow. The barbed arrow flew true and wedged itself inside one of the head-sized knot amalgamations. The children sobbed and clutched each other, perhaps in fear or perhaps in relief, and she pulled the bowline taut.
One must be violated, Meli realized, between the Exile and the Laws. There had been no one to choose for her, and no guidance from her childhood—no crones, no sages, no one. And as she locked eyes with the children—with her new family—she realized why... there was still a crone left, still a sage, still someone with the knowledge to be taught, and with pupils who must learn. Her Exile was over, she realized—it had been banished by the Storm.