From the author: Young Daybreak-under-Clouds yearns to leave the village of Lionfjord and travel the world, an act that marks the passage into manhood. But Daybreak has been caught having sex with men, and in Lionfjord, this is confirmation of womanhood. Miserable in a new gender role and desperate to leave Lionfjord, Daybreak doesn’t know what to do—until the mischievous Traveler Boneoak comes to town, with his irresistible smile and brilliant ideas.
Daybreak-under-Clouds stood and faced her grandmother. Heads in the assembled crowd turned. Were they staring at her boldness? Or--still--the fact that Daybreak wore a dress?
Daybreak didn't like it either. One short year ago, she had been certain that she'd grow up to be a man instead. So had everyone else, for that matter, until Daybreak began to dawdle outside the Traveler House and eye the bodies of Traveling men with obvious desire. Daybreak's no boy, the whispered rumors went. She's a girl, ready to become a woman. What else could explain Daybreak's obsession? Men didn't lie with men, after all; everyone knew that.
Daybreak forced her chin to stay up. Though her palms were damp and her heart banged like a galloping rockhorse, she said, "I, Daybreak-under-Clouds, approach the Council."
From beneath the low, heavy bows of the boneoak, five pairs of ancient eyes regarded her. "Approach," said Thunder-within-Sky.
Daybreak stepped to the shadow's edge. The morning was sticky with heat. She longed to remove her much-hated dress and bare her flat, muscled chest to what little breeze there was, but the unmarried women and girls in Lionfjord did not have that privilege. "I wish to talk to the Council again about my Traveling."
Ashes-in-the-Garden, all the way on the left, spoke as though Daybreak were an imbecile. "Only young men Travel. Women and girls stay in the village."
"But my papa—er—before Spring-from-the-White-Rocks died, we talked about his Traveling, and he swore that someday I'd go, and surely you wouldn't dare break the promise of a father to his—"
Grandma Thunder-within-Sky raised her hand. Her expression was stone. "Daybreak-under-Clouds. One year ago, you consorted with a Traveler in the Traveler House, did you not?"
"I did, Councilor, but—"
"And you do know, do you not, that such an act is a confirmation of femininity? Namely, womanhood?"
"I do, Councilor, but—"
"And you have since continued to consort with the Travelers that pass through Lionfjord, have you not?"
"I have, Councilor, but—"
"Then there is no discussion to be had. The far-away lands that run south, north, and east are the destiny and domain of men. You have consorted with men, and are therefore a woman. And women do not have a Traveling." Grandma clapped her hands twice. "It is settled. Who is next?"
"It is not settled," said Daybreak, her hard tenor carrying through the startled silence. "You know that all my life I've dreamed of my Traveling, of seeing the Lands of Salt and the Mile-High Tower, and going where the houses—"
"Enough," ordered Grandma, rising to her feet. "You will shut your ungrateful mouth, you willful child, and go back to the Maiden House. You need to spend your time there far more than you need to waste it here."
Daybreak's powerful hands tightened into fists. Her vision clouded not with a woman's tears, but a man's rage.
"It is settled," said Grandma firmly. "Now who is next?"
Daybreak turned on her slippered heel and stomped south, through Council Field and past the boneyard to the Maiden House in the village proper. The worst of it was that Grandma was right. Daybreak had only been a woman for a year, and while her body continually ached for consort with men—their big hands, their broad shoulders, their full desire hot alongside hers—in every other womanly art, she was an embarrassing failure.
After nightfall, Daybreak took the trail on the north bank of the Twine River and followed it west to the sea. It was too late for fishermen, so she saw no one. But that was fine. That was what she wanted.
She stopped at the mouth of the fjord. South and north, the fjord's steep arms, Howltongue and Roartongue, stretched into the ocean, ignoring the volatile froth that churned between them. Gibbous Heaven was just climbing down from the sky, sinking toward the silvery blocks of light that awaited it upon the maddened water. Heaven's own luminous, blue oceans were no doubt churning, too. Daybreak gazed with sickened longing at its distant continents, its arcs of snowy clouds. Earth looked the same from Heaven, old Priest Shell-in-the-Sand taught. If so, it did no good to gaze up at it, for it was nothing but another mocking reminder of what Daybreak could not have.
Here on Earth, the outgoing tide was picking up speed, following the eternal call of Heaven. Each wave pulled back farther and farther, revealing great strides of the fjord's bottom with each wash. But as Daybreak eyed the steady revelation of the slick, shimmering rocks, she received the strangest impression.
Heaven was showing her a way.
South, north, and east—that was the destiny and domain of men.
But the old rule said nothing about going west.
Daybreak approached the high-tide zone, where she stared with a predator's hunger at the rapidly receding sea. Only suicides and imbeciles chased after it past Warning Rock, so certain was the death that awaited when the returning tide came to pounce upon the exhausted. Even the fishermen only dared to go out far enough to set their traps.
But suicides, imbeciles, and fishermen had all given up on Traveling.
"Perhaps I should try riding there," Daybreak mused to Boneoak-within-Forest. "If I rode a rockhorse along the riverbed into the fjord—Brambles-by-the-Twine has a gelding that's very sure-footed..."
Boneoak cocked his head. He was a Traveler, aged twenty-six years. His hair was a lighter brown than hers, and his eyes starmoss green. He smiled at everyone, but it was an odd smile of caution, or thought, or serious secrets. When Daybreak had boldly told him that she was going to Travel across the ocean-bed someday, he hadn't laughed. Only asked how it might be done.
"Why not a boat?" he asked.
"What's a boat?"
Boneoak's eyebrows went up. "Other Travelers haven't told you? Or the settled men in your village?"
"Your mama? Your papa?"
"No. I can't ask them, either. They've crossed to Heaven. And I'm... not good... at talking with farparents."
Boneoak rolled onto his side in the bed they shared. He propped his head up with one hand, gray-green gaze tracing the hard lines of Daybreak's naked skin. From beyond the greenreed mats that hung around Boneoak's pile of furs, gentle conversations and cries of pleasure floated as other unmarried women of Lionfjord tried to entice their chosen Travelers to stay and wed. "Surely your papa must've told you of his own Traveling before he crossed?"
Daybreak sat up. "Oh yes. And he promised me that someday I'd—I mean—yes—the cave with no bottom, and the Lands of Salt, and a place where the grass is so high, it grows past the head of a rockhorse. And he said there's a region to the south where the tops of the mountains spit fire, and—"
"He never told you about Giant's Lake? Or the Infinite River?" Boneoak's cautious smile emerged. "There are places where the rivers are so large, they're wider than ponds, and ponds so big, it's hard to see the opposite shore. To cross these, a bridge isn't enough. So, you use a boat. Think of a leaf floating on the surface of a puddle, with whirl seeds fallen on top of it. But picture it made large, so the seeds are the size of people. The leaf would be your boat."
Daybreak leaned forward. "How do you make one?"
"Out of wood."
Daybreak gripped Boneoak's arm, the muscles of her forearm jumping."Show me tomorrow."
The simplest kind of boat to make, Boneoak explained (as he drew diagrams in a soft clay shore of the Twine with a stick), was called a trunk boat. "All you need is the trunk of a fallen boneoak tree," he said. "You cut a section, strip off the bark, and burn out the center. Then you pare it down further into the right shape."
Daybreak shook her head. "How will we ever move a boneoak trunk to the water's edge?"
"Oh, we won't work alone. There are plenty of other Travelers who can spare an hour or so from their work for Lionfjord. And anyway, other people's work is always so much more interesting than one's own."
From the path behind them, Daybreak heard giggles and whispers. Sunlight-off-of-Water had sent some of the other girls from the Maiden House to spy on Daybreak, no doubt, to see what crucial task she could possibly be doing that was more important than practicing her sorely underdeveloped womanly skills. A flush crept though Daybreak's ears, but she staunchly ignored the giggles. Travel, as long as it was west, was completely womanly.
"I saw what could be a good trunk around here a few days ago," said Boneoak.
"East of here on the opposite bank?"
"Ah, you know the one." Boneoak stood and discarded his stick. "Wait here. I want a closer look at it, but I'd hate to make you stomp through the briars in that pretty dress for nothing, in case it isn't suitable." Before Daybreak could even smile, Boneoak sprang lightly across the Twine's exposed rocks and vanished into the undergrowth on the opposite shore.
"Pity the dress is the only thing that's pretty."
Daybreak's teeth clenched within her neutral mouth. She turned. Most of the other girls were up the path some ways, clearly ready to go home with the intelligence they'd already gathered. But one girl was picking her careful, fastidious way down the long slope toward the water's edge, smoothing the route before her with a self-satisfied smile. "I'm only saying what's true."
"Leave me alone, Skill."
Skill-with-Laughter stopped near Boneoak's diagrams. She frowned at the dark clay. "You know he's only humoring you."
"I don't care."
"He feels sorry for you." Skill raised her head and tilted it prettily. "Once he's satisfied with his charity, it'll be me he comes after."
Shame and longing churned in Daybreak's guts. Skill was slender and willowy, with a higher tenor and a graceful, rolling walk. She could tend a garden, quiet a crying child, roll the bones and speak with the farparents, train a rockhorse, weave a greenreed mat, and tame a waveraptor. Bones, she could probably build an entire Small House on her own. But Skill had known since she was four that she'd grow up to be a woman. It wasn't fair.
Skill leaned in. The plumpseed oil on her lips made them glisten. Even her makeup was perfect. "You know he's the sort of man who only likes front-tailed women. And you know you don't stand a chance against me." Her smile turned indulgent. "If I decided I wanted him back. Which I'm still not sure about yet. What's he worth to you, Daybreak?"
Daybreak's eyes tightened into slits. "What exactly are you saying?"
"It'll do!" Boneoak emerged from the jungle on the far bank and jumped back over the rocks. "Come see, Daybreak. You'll have to risk your dress after all. Who was that?"
Skill was already floating up the slope, back to the path and her tittering escort. Daybreak's lip curled. "Nobody."
Boneoak watched Skill climb. Of course he did—no man could resist watching her do anything. "You sound upset. Did she say something to you?"
"No." Daybreak dropped her eyes to the mud. "Boneoak—am I pretty? Do you... do you really want me?"
Boneoak closed the air between them. His strong hands slithered around the small of Daybreak's broad back. "I want you all day," he breathed into her ear, "but seeing as how I'm Traveling, I'll have to be satisfied with having you only at night." He took her earlobe between his teeth, gently, in claim. "Hmm?"
"I'm not..." Daybreak felt her desire rise beneath her dress. Boneoak ground into her, once, teasing. "I'm not a very good woman."
Boneoak pulled back. He offered her his closed, mysterious smile. "You're a fine woman, Daybreak. Now come—we've a boat to build."
The boat came faster than Daybreak would've thought, but the constant stream of assistants helped. So did their stories. Boneoak and the other men were more than happy to tell and retell their tales of lands wide and deep. Daybreak listened with an insatiable hunger (more than once at the expense of the direction of her chisel), asking questions that had no end. Did the wolves in the Red Forest really have saber teeth? Did the snow on Skytouch Peak really never melt? Was there really a lake of floating mountains? How could a mountain spit fire? Was it true that the birds in Jewel Fen could speak like people? The men's answers were as colorful as their tales, ranging from blunt and cryptic to elaborately poetic, and listening to them only made Daybreak's yearning burn hotter. She didn't just want them, she wanted to be them—to be surrounded by them, to wander in spontaneously formed tribes from village to village, chiseling out her essential self with the long blows of the road. Every morning, when whatever Travelers felt the urge waved good-bye and mounted the trail up Boarder Hill, Daybreak's heart cried out after them, sick with envy and imagination and loss, for the conclusions of their stories that she'd never get to hear. Blown like windweeds, they came, thrived, grew a little bit larger, and rushed on, across who knows how many wild and lonely lands before their roots finally came down, in some unknown, exotic soil.
Never had the towering arms of Lion Fjord felt so oppressive.
"You're spending a lot of time with that Traveler Boneoak," said Daybreak's grandmother one morning. "And he's spent a long time in Lionfjord. Are you going to propose?"
Daybreak looked up from the rows of crisp-roots she was weeding. She and Grandma Thunder-within-Sky were crouching in the dirt of the Maiden House's garden. They had been out since sunrise, the Councilor stubbornly rebuking her granddaughter for every vegetable seedling she accidentally pulled up. "I... I don't know."
"You should. That's a crisp-root, child, another crisp-root."
"I'm sorry." Daybreak scrutinized the tiny root for some telltale crisp-root-like quality. Her eyes wandered to the ridge of callouses below her fingers, thickened from her hours of holding a chisel. If only Boneoak hadn't agreed to help muck out the rockhorse stalls this morning, they could be working together on the boat right now.
"Well, are you going to put it back into the ground?"
"I'm sorry." Daybreak sought the crisp-root's native hole.
"Honestly, Daybreak, you aren't even trying." Grandma's voice softened. "You should ask him, you know. He likes you."
Daybreak suppressed a shiver. "I can't get married now, Grandma."
"What? Why in The Mother's name not?"
The west. Aloud, Daybreak said, "Well," and gestured to the battle-scarred crisp-root patch.
"Oh, Daybreak." Grandma raised her creaking bones with a sigh, stepped across the row, and resettled beside her. "You're just a late-bloomer. Keep trying. You'll get it right." Her tone took on a wandering, dreamy quality. "You won't go Traveling, like your older brothers. You'll stay here and get married, and take in a babe of your own. And I'll have great-grandchildren." She held Daybreak's strong, calloused hand. "When I heard you'd consorted with that first Traveler, I was so happy. When Clouds-beyond-Thunder crossed to Heaven, I thought she'd taken with her my only chance to have a granddaughter." Grandma squeezed her hand. "But then The Mother gave me you—who you really are. Don't give up, child. You'll be happy someday."
Daybreak dared to look Grandma in the eye, but Grandma's far-away gaze did not hold love. Rather, it held a calm satisfaction, as if this arrangement pleasing her was all that mattered.
Despite the sun's merciless heat, the pit of Daybreak's stomach grew cold.
"Everything will work out," said Grandma, releasing Daybreak's hand. "Now try weeding the shortpeppers."
Four days later, the boat was complete. The current crowd of Travelers, laughing and singing, helped drag the thing to the Twine, rolling it over small logs and sliding it across makeshift roads of fanleaves. Daybreak watched, giddy with triumph. I'm really going to do it. I'm going to become like you.
The boat, which Boneoak dubbed Runner-after-Heaven—for all boats had names like people, the men explained—sat high and confident in the Twine, even when Boneoak helped Daybreak climb inside and then climbed in himself. The men on the south bank whistled congratulations as Boneoak fit the oars into the oarlocks, maneuvered Runner's nose downstream, and pulled.
"We'll moor him high on the delta, just before the beach at the mouth of the fjord," said Boneoak, "so nothing but a Heaventide can reach him. And then—!"
"Then?" asked Daybreak, leaning forward.
"Then—well, you tell me." Boneoak's eyes twinkled like Heavenlight on the sea. "This is your Traveling, isn't it? You decide when and where and how to go."
Power surged through Daybreak's veins. She inhaled and sat up straight, and for a moment believed that her will was mighty enough to propel her anywhere. "I—well, I—"
"Think about it carefully first," Boneoak laughed, steering them around a rock. "The ocean is no play-yard. There's a reason nobody's ever gone where you're about to."
Instead of fumbling with the Maiden House's loom or getting scratched by irate hatchlings in the waveraptor mew, Daybreak spent her early evenings on Stony Beach, one hand on Runner, watching the fishermen beneath the lowering sun. When the thunderous tide turned tail, they'd trot out to the seabed and snatch up their traps. The more daring went farther with buckets and dug through the exposed muck for shellfleshes and mudmeats. And the foolhardy Travelers distinguished themselves from the settled men of Lionfjord by racing out even farther, prying rockmeats from the slick boulders with whoops of triumph. Once Daybreak hiked out to the top of Roartongue Ridge and watched. At that vantage point, she could see fields and fields of dark-green stones, covered in clumps of rockmeat like lumps of moss. Any fisherman—or Traveler—who could bring back such bounty would be much respected indeed.
"I've decided," said Daybreak to Boneoak that night. "I'm going out to the center of the fjord, past Warning Rock." They were in Boneoak's bed, facing each other, both of them drowsy but unwilling to sleep.
"Hmm?" Boneoak roused himself. "And how are you going to do that?"
"Easily," said Daybreak. "I'll ride the ebbing tide out past the shellflesh diggers, drop anchor, and climb out and take all those rockmeats. And when the tide turns, I'll just ride Runner back in."
"That's quite a plan."
"I don't care if you think it won't work."
It was too dark to see, but Daybreak was certain that Boneoak was grinning his secret grin. "I know."
The next day was Heaven-Half-Empty, the time when the Dark tides cycled too far into the evening and fishermen switched back to the Bright tides that would cycle through the day during the next quartermonth. Daybreak would've rather made her move on a Dark tide, unseen, but trying to gather rockmeats at night in unfamiliar territory would be foolish.
So, early the next morning, Daybreak went down to Stony Beach with the Lionfjord fishermen and any Travelers scheduled to help. While the others carried the usual buckets and nets, she carried a sack of provisions and the determination to ignore their inquisitive glances. The Father bind them. She was going.
While the fishermen milled around on the shaded beach, chatting and eyeing the slack tide for signs of turning, Daybreak readied Runner-after-Heaven. When the waves looked to be starting their retreat, Daybreak pushed against Runner's stern with everything she had, until he ground down the bank of the delta and into the shallow mouth of the Twine.
Waveraptor-in-the-Air turned around at the noise. "Daybreak? What are you doing?"
Daybreak ignored him. She pushed Runner farther, down to where the Twine spilled over the beach and melted into the waves. The icy water bit into her slippered feet, then calves, then knees. The ocean surged and sucked, and it was hard to keep her footing. She lifted the sodden hem of her dress and clambered into the boat, to the sound of muffled exclamations and giggles at her peculiar actions, but one determined glare from her and their amusement turned into confusion.
Daybreak lifted the oars, like Boneoak had showed her, and dipped their blades into the frothing salt. "Fine day for a Travel, isn't it?"
Because she had to sit backward to row, Daybreak had the gleeful pleasure of watching their confusion turn to shock, just moments before the ascending sun blinded her.
"What is she—she's—roll the bones! Daybreak! Daybreak, don't!"
Daybreak laughed. Heaven loomed behind her, pulling, half of its mysteries shrouded in dark. The turning sea began to gather speed and strength, and it was all she could do to row to keep from being grounded. In moments, the frantic shouts of the fishermen were muted beneath the whoosh and hiss of the waves. A handful of Travelers sprinted into the water, but going more than thigh-deep in such accelerating forces meant death. Once the tide receded past Warning Rock, they cupped their hands and wailed, but dared not follow farther.
The sun slipped behind a fleecy cloud. Daybreak's vision cleared. The bountiful ocean-bed opened up before her, revealing more treasure than she ever could have guessed at from her perch atop Roartongue Ridge. Rockmeats as big as juicemelons, writhing longfish trapped in tide pools, slimy fjordapples carpeting the ground. Occasionally, a muckdiver swooped down and snatched one away in its shovel-shaped beak. And when an especially violent wave nearly grounded Daybreak, she saw a creature no one in Lionfjord had ever seen alive—a sea hedgehog—uncurl itself from within a now-exposed rocky crevice and go on the prowl, hemmed in by canyons painted with wilting seaweeds of fantastic colors. At its approach, strange insects popped up from the mud, leaping like bushhoppers before burrowing into the drooping weeds.
It was magnificent.
At Drowning Rock, Daybreak dropped the anchor. The waves of the still-receding ocean pulled hard but the anchor held, and in twenty waves, Runner was resting on the revealed alien jungle.
Leaping from the boat, flatknife ready, Daybreak dared to sing a fishermen's song.
The rockmeats fell like hay beneath a scythe. Daybreak heaved them into the boat with glee. A single round of work out here and she could gather enough to feed the entire village. Yes—when she returned, they'd have a feast, and everyone would be so impressed that the next time the Council met, surely Grandma would acquiesce to letting Daybreak Travel like a man, and—
Something stung her.
She flinched and looked down. A sea hedgehog stood by her ankle, barbed tail waving. Daybreak snorted. "It'll take more than your little beesting to stop me now."
Something stung her other ankle. A second sea hedgehog waved its tail at her, spikes bristling.
"Oh, stop it," said Daybreak. "What are you out hunting? Minnows trapped in tide pools? Well, don't worry. I'm not here for something so small."
The rocks around her came alive. Dark cracks cleared as tens and twenties of sea hedgehogs, tails raised and ready, scuttled toward her.
Daybreak yelped and dropped her flatknife. She scrambled toward the boat, but rocks sharp with bladeflesh slowed her down, and patches of stinking mud sucked off her slippers. The sea hedgehogs rushed her bare feet. They stung her insteps and the sensitive places between her toes. Her yelps turned to yells. Her skin was turning red. By the time Daybreak reached the boat, her feet and ankles were swelling.
She climbed in. The sea hedgehogs swarmed around her, scrabbling at Runner's sides, searching for flaws in the polished, oiled wood that their hooked feet could catch. Daybreak picked up a rockmeat and began the fight in earnest, trying to mash it down upon them as they scaled the outer hull, but they were tough as sunlobsters, and as stupid. Daybreak couldn't discourage them, only lunge around the boat and knock them off—over and over and over.
Her lower legs tingled. It became hard to breathe. Though the tide was still receding, the roar of the ocean somehow got louder and the sky became strangely dim. Time for an eclipse already? The sea hedgehogs multiplied and splintered into shadows, and Daybreak lunged at them with her rockmeat but struck nothing. The tingling in her legs grew to prickles, then biting fire. Darkness and light popped before her eyes. Each breath was like drowning.
The rockmeat slipped from Daybreak's hand. Both it and she fell to Runner's bottom.
Jumbled dreams rolled beneath her—scorching sun, the earth rocking, the stench of death and salt. She'd gotten too close to the firepit and the hem of her dress had caught. Stinging shadows crawled over her body, and Boneoak asked her, "Where do you want to go?"
Daybreak opened her eyes. It was twilight, the sunset dark blood in the west. Her head throbbed. The earth rose and fell beneath her, gently, like the chest of a slumbering giant. Her lower legs pulsed with agony, and when she wiggled her ankles, the pain was enough to make her scream.
Her throat constricted around the sound. So dry.
Daybreak pulled herself up into sitting. Around her was glimmering dimness delineated by liquid splinters of light. Dark shapes bracketed it to the south and north. Above, half-full Heaven had vanished, leaving an empty nest of a million stars.
The Dark tide had come in. She was still in the boat.
Daybreak pulled her waterskin from her sack of provisions and sipped. Once her throat was wet enough, she started laughing.
When Daybreak rowed into the mouth of the Twine at dawn, pushed by the waves of the rising Bright tide, the fishermen did not cheer.
Instead, they gasped and shouted. Some stared in open-mouthed silence. Daybreak rowed Runner onto a gravelly bank, then hefted the biggest rockmeat she'd gotten, masking the agony in her legs with a fierce grin. "Who wants rockmeat stew?" she asked, but nobody laughed or whistled.
Wind-beyond-Boughs took one look at Daybreak's feet and ran back to Lionfjord to get the Priest. A handful of fishermen turned their backs, mouths sour and nets wrapped around clenched fists. The rest stared at her. A sick feeling began to build in Daybreak's gut, but she kept her head high and moved to the edge of the boat to climb out and stand, even though she didn't think she'd be able.
The crowd of fishermen looked at each other uncertainly. Only one face, in the back, was smiling.
Daybreak didn't have to climb out and stand after all. Boneoak carried her all the way back to Lionfjord, whistling.
Hearing the talk outside the Priest House was enough to close up Daybreak's throat again.
"Is she well enough for me to see her?" demanded Grandma, on the other side of the oilbark walls.
"Give her some more moments," said Priest Shell-in-the-Sand, in her measured, quiet way. "Let her rest with her lover."
"She doesn't need a few moments! She needs guidance!"
"Of course she does," Shell said, "but the poultice I've put on her feet is uncomfortable enough, and it'll take some time before—"
"I want her while she's hurt," said Grandma sharply, "so she can't deny to herself the idiocy of what she's done."
A voice Daybreak didn't know interrupted. "Did Waveraptor tell you what she brought home? Rockmeats as big as your head!"
"You will be quiet, Traveler. This is a Lionfjord affair." To Priest Shell-in-the-Sand: "Will her feet heal?"
"To be honest, I'm afraid I'm not sure. We don't know what a sea hedgehog sting can do. But the flesh, though firm, is red, not purple or black, so I'm optimistic."
"That's almost a shame. Losing her feet would prevent her from trying this again."
Daybreak's heart squeezed within her chest, even as Boneoak, kneeling by her bedside, squeezed her hand.
"Do you hear me in there, Daybreak-under-Clouds?" Grandma Thunder-within-Sky shouted. "I forbid you to go out in that boat!"
It took days for both Daybreak's feet and courage to recover. But while her body needed many of Shell's uncomfortable concoctions, in the end, her courage needed but one furtive conversation.
"You should just go out when the high tide's at night," Boneoak said to her, beneath his breath.
It was the deep night of the Near-Heaventide Summer Eve Festival. Heaven's slender crescent had just risen into a sky patchy with clouds and now hung behind them in the east like a silver flame behind a screen. All of Lionfjord had been waiting for it at Council Field since sunset, feasting and swapping tales of the next world in between poems to honor those who had crossed over during the previous year. With Heaven's appearance, the late-running Festival was finally winding down, and old Councilor Springtime-chases-Summertime was indulging in his annual retelling of the final story. In years past, Daybreak had been enraptured by the tale of Fox-dancing-with-Snow, wondering at the brave spirit who dared cross to Earth without a Heaventide before his next body was ready to receive him. But Daybreak's mood was too low to be distracted by tales, and her mind wandered. She'd barely heard Boneoak's interruption. "Hmm?"
"At night," repeated Boneoak. He spoke without looking at her, scooping up bites of shellflesh stew in his bowl with his stonebread. "Go out in the boat when the tide's up at night. You've walked on the fjord bottom once before, so you know what's there now. And the fishermen won't be working. Who would stop you?"
Daybreak looked sideways at him. Boneoak was still focused on the remains of his meal, but the edges of his mouth curled upward, cupping his proposed secret.
"But anyone would stop me," said Daybreak. "The whole village is terrified of Grandma, and everyone knows what I've done. If anyone saw me, they'd raise the alarm and I would never make it."
"If anyone saw you. A lookout would prevent that."
Daybreak glanced sideways at him again. The curve of Boneoak's smile bent deeper, like the far-away bottom of the fjord.
"...Boneoak?" Daybreak asked.
"Yes." It wasn't a question.
They snuck away together from Lionfjord the next night, witnessed only by the unblinking eyes of the stars. Priest Shell-in-the-Sand was out in the boneyard with Lionfjord's pregnant women, readying their wombs for the wave of souls that would ride the next Heaventide back to Earth. But the boneyard was at the northern end of the village, and they were nothing but gravid shapes swaying against distant firelight. Daybreak and Boneoak padded to the beach unseen.
Once there, Boneoak helped her load the boat. Daybreak was better prepared this time, with double the provisions, an extra knife, a hatchet, a spear, a net, a bucket, and most importantly—and unexpectedly—a pair of knee-high Traveling boots made of tough Ahatchipan leather. They were Boneoak's. He handed them to her once everything else was settled, and Daybreak sat on a rock to put them on, her heart aching. Overhead, a few wisps of cloud drifted between the constellations. The starlight hugged Boneoak's broad shoulders and handsome face, and watching him carefully oil the oarlocks with a handful of rockhorse fat, Daybreak's heartache became unbearable. "Boneoak."
"Why are you doing all this?"
Boneoak looked up, quizzically. "Because I love you."
The spent waves hissed their jealousy atop the beach's gravel. "Do you? Is this what love looks like?"
"Well, what would you call it?"
Daybreak stood. "Come with me."
She wrapped her arms around his waist, pressing her face down into the nape of his neck and inhaling the smell of him, starmoss and old leather. "Come with me. I want—I want—"
Dreams of the road clouded her vision, she and Boneoak side by side, marching out together into the wide and deep. Together they'd scale the Diamond Mountains and descend into the Open Abyss, and build more boats and row the entire length of the Infinite. They'd cross rivers of ice and forests of lightning. They'd run with beasts. They'd wrap up the world in a history of footsteps, laying them down in tandem, paving the miles with their cyclic breaths. And at night, their paths would dovetail and become one. Again and again, in a rainfall of days, a thunderstorm of days, until they found a far-away that was meant to become home.
"You want?" Boneoak asked. His hands had gone still.
"I want you to be with me, Boneoak."
For a moment, his breath stopped. "Daybreak. Are you asking me if I'll—will I marry you?"
Daybreak's heart clenched like a fist. No. Yes. Not like that.
"I don't..." Her voice sounded small and defeated. "I don't know."
Boneoak squeezed her fingers with a fat-greased hand, then swiveled in her grasp and embraced her, his breath quick and hot against her neck. "I'll be here when you get back. But look—the tide is beginning to turn. I'll help you launch Runner. Come."
They parted, Daybreak avoiding his eyes. For ten precious steps, their hands on Runner's stern, they moved side by side in tandem, but then Boneoak said, "I'll help you in," and Daybreak sat in the boat, alone.
She watched his face as the tide pulled her away.
Movement flashed at the trailhead to Lionfjord. A second shape strolled partway down the beach, beneath the shadows of the trees. Emerging into the cold starlight, Skill-with-Laughter, with her graceful, seductive walk, approached Boneoak. She put a hand on his arm. Boneoak turned.
Daybreak stood. "Boneoak!" she shouted, but his name was eaten by the ocean's roar.
Daybreak returned on the next high tide, in late morning, her heart as heavy with worry as Runner was with catch. Boneoak was nowhere to be seen, not even farther up the Twine, when Daybreak rowed Runner up and grounded and anchored him at his usual place. In fact, the beach and river mouth were empty.
Daybreak covered her prizes with netting, as much to discourage the wheeling muckdivers as to busy her nervous hands. As she worked, the boughs at the trailhead nodded. Councilor Springtime-chases-Summertime emerged, followed by Councilor Muckdiver-on-the-Cliff.
"Councilors?" Daybreak asked. She stepped from the boat. "Where are the fishermen?"
More Councilors came—Ashes-in-the-Garden, and Longrass-near-Burrows—and only then, the fishermen. But the fishermen had no buckets or nets, and more people kept coming after them. Hunters, Travelers, mothers, children, stone- and wood-carvers, rockhorse handlers, waveraptor tamers. Almost all of Lionfjord.
Last to emerge was Grandma Thunder-within-Sky, Skill-with-Laughter at her elbow.
Daybreak's worry turned to anger. "What is this?"
"Daybreak-under-Clouds," said Grandma, "you are charged with disobeying your sirepeople. Not two hands ago, I expressly forbade you to go out in this—this boat—"
"I'm fine!" Daybreak looked wildly from assembled face to face, but all were closed and serious. "It doesn't matter—I took Boneoak's boots and I'm fine! I didn't get hurt at all!"
"—and you flagrantly disobeyed me. Skill-with-Laughter witnessed everything."
"Well, Skill-with-Laughter is a greedy, conniving pig," Daybreak shouted, "who could have any man she wants, but that's still not enough for her!"
"Young lady," said Muckdiver-on-the-Cliff, "you will be silent. Or must we also charge you with disobeying your Council?"
"We find you guilty," said Grandma. "And for punishment, you will burn that evil boat on Heaventide Night before the entire village."
Heads turned. Boneoak shoved his way down to the beach, panting, the Priest's two apprentices in hot pursuit. "Wait! If I may approach the Council!"
"You may not," said Grandma. "Why is the prisoner not being restrained? You have already been convicted of assisting in a crime, Traveler, and you have no right—"
"She is my betrothed!"
Gasps were swiftly muffled.
Skill's smug demeanor blanked to shock. But Daybreak could take no pleasure in it, for it was nothing but, at best, a terrible misunderstanding, and at worst, an ugly lie. "Boneoak—"
"Silence." Thunder-within-Sky turned to Boneoak, eyes narrowed. The panting apprentices finally caught up with him and grabbed his arms, but he ignored their presence and mirrored the elder's stoicism. "Wait, apprentices. Traveler, you may approach."
"She is my betrothed," said Boneoak, "and Lionfjord will be my far-away. Please—let me help make up for what I've done to all of you. I'll burn the boat myself. It was I who taught her how to make it anyway."
Quick as Daybreak's anger had flooded in, it ebbed away, leaving her ragged and painfully empty. How could you? she tried to say, but even her breath had disappeared.
Grandma's whitened eyebrows rose. She spoke slowly. "You're going to marry my granddaughter? And raise my great-grandchildren?"
"With all my love and will."
"Hmm," Grandma said.
"I think his proposal is reasonable," said Springtime-chases-Summertime.
"And a sincere apology is always a good foundation for a new beginning," said Longrass-near-Burrows.
"Very well," said Thunder-within-Sky. "Boneoak-within-Forest, you shan't be required to leave Lionfjord tonight after all. Instead, in five days' time, you'll burn the boat. And Daybreak-under-Clouds—you will watch him do it."
Daybreak's breath wouldn't come back. She collapsed to the beach on her knees, the sharp stones biting hard.
Grandma clapped her hands twice. "It is settled. Apprentices, let my grandson-in-law go. And get rid of whatever my fool granddaughter's brought back with her again. It's ill-gotten, and likely to be cursed."
While Daybreak sat nearby in misery in her place of honor upon a longrass mat beneath a fanleaf umbrella, the married women of Lionfjord laughed and worked on the latest Small House to join their number. Many took breaks to chat with Daybreak and congratulate her. They all agreed that she was very lucky. Boneoak, while undeniably mischievous and hard to read, was hard-working, generous, and handsome, and a latecomer to womanhood like Daybreak would never do better.
Her nights were still spent with Boneoak in the Traveler House, but now her desire filled her with shame. It was this lust that had doomed her to stay chained within Lionfjord's limits. They would make love in silence, her face pressed to his neck, taking sick comfort in the very thing that poisoned her.
"Don't you love me?" Boneoak whispered.
Tomorrow, the sun and blackened Heaven would rise together. They'd climb the sky, Heaven overlapping and fusing with the sun into The Mother's womb, until, imbued with the heat of Life, soul-gravid Heaven pulled aside and spilled all those quickened souls straight down. Heaventide. The earth might quake, and the ocean would surge with the incoming vitality, all the way up Stony Beach and into the freshwater reeds of the Twine.
"I said, don't you love me?" Boneoak whispered.
Runner-after-Heaven was waiting there, high on the bank, awaiting the bonfire that Boneoak would build around his flanks.
Daybreak didn't answer.
She rolled away. "The Mother help me. I do."
"Then please—what's wrong?"
"What's wrong? You're going to destroy Runner!"
"Hush." Boneoak sat up. "Listen to me. Do you think I want to do this?"
"Then why are you doing it?"
"Because I can't stand to watch you annihilate what you've always dreamed of."
Daybreak fell silent.
"Burning that boat would be like cutting off your own hand," said Boneoak. "It would kill you."
"I'm dead already." Daybreak got to her feet and dressed. "I'm getting married. I'll be trapped in Lionfjord valley for the rest of my life, and the most Traveling I'll ever do will be to cross to Heaven when I die. I wish I would die. Then I'd finally get to go someplace new, where nobody would care if I used to be a man or woman or what."
Boneoak looked as though she'd struck him. "Is a life with me so terrible?"
"No," said Daybreak, in almost a shout. "Don't you get it? I want to Travel, Boneoak, and I want to Travel with you."
Daybreak ran outside.
Her feet led her down to the beach. The sky was rain-pregnant and thickly overcast, without any starlight to guide her, but she'd know the way with her eyes closed. She climbed into waiting Runner and doubled over on a bench, not knowing whether to cry or scream. She wanted to punch Skill in the face. She wanted to burn her half-finished Small House to the ground. She wanted to—
His steps clattered across the stones. "Please. I'm sorry. Listen—"
"I said, go away."
"I have an idea."
"You and your ideas," shouted Daybreak. "Making me think I can actually get what I want! I'm a woman, Boneoak, and women stay home!"
"I'll go out with you."
Daybreak rubbed a wrist across her eyes. "What?"
Boneoak stepped to Runner's side. He laid a broad, calloused hand upon the wood, rippled with the countless chisel strokes of his and Daybreak's, overlapping and dovetailing into an indistinguishable whole. "At Heaventide," said Boneoak quietly, "when everyone's praying in the boneyard tomorrow, you'll have time to take Runner out one last time. And... I'll go with you."
Daybreak shook her head. "But—"
"I know," said Boneoak. "When they find that we've gone missing, they'll be furious. And I can't say what they'll sentence us to when we come back. And it isn't much, I know, especially when it's sure to come at such a terrible cost. But... it's what we can have.
"So..." Boneoak paused. "Daybreak-under-Clouds—will you Travel with me, for a while?"
Those distant foothills, unknown rivers, black woods and waterfalls, deserts of red sand that piled up in the wind like mountains, frozen wastes and lush deltas full of exotic serpents and monsters—this was what Traveling with Boneoak should've been.
Not a halfcycle of the tides, in a trunk boat.
But they'd walk in places no one else had ever walked in, and marvel at the things they found there, and go wherever the wind would pull them.
The history of their footsteps would be so short.
Daybreak blinked back tears. "I will."
Heaventide dawned thick and cloudy, the air nearly tense enough to crackle. Rain was coming, everyone agreed, but breakfast came and went, and no drops fell.
Skittish winds arose, darkening the clouds to purple-black. Praying out in the boneyard under this sky was asking for ill-luck, the Priest and the Council agreed. The Priest would say the prayers on behalf of everyone, but the rest of Lionfjord was to remain indoors.
"We're still going," said Daybreak to Boneoak, outside the door of the Traveler House. "Aren't we?"
Boneoak eyed the blackening sky in silence, the wind roughing his hair. "Are we?"
"We have to. It's our last chance."
Boneoak nodded. "It is, isn't it?"
They went inside to wait. Boneoak lay in bed on his back. Daybreak lay atop him, and with his arms around her hips, they softly told each other stories. What Boneoak's parents had prayed he'd become ("quiet but wise—they didn't get either wish, I think"). What Daybreak had been like as a child, when she was so sure she'd grow up to be a man, and all the manly arts she'd excelled at—trapping, skinning, haggling and bargaining, singing and poetry. What Boneoak's childhood village was like. What bodies they'd had in former lives, according to the Priests who'd seen their births, and what body they might expect next. They talked as though they'd never talk again. Perhaps they wouldn't, Daybreak thought, at least not like this, because once they Traveled together, a sediment of good memories would drift down onto Boneoak's ever-thickening past, but Daybreak would have nothing new to reminisce over—only this single, stormy Heaventide, rushing further and further away.
When Daybreak guessed the time was right, they dressed, snuck out the side door, and took their pre-gathered supplies to the beach.
In its cage of the Lion Fjord, the ocean was roaring. Brave Runner-after-Heaven stubbornly stood his ground upon the Twine's grassy bank. The Heaventide was at its apex, the frothing ocean raised to overflowing, and Daybreak tried not to stare at it as she readied the boat.
Instead, she eyed Boneoak's slipper-clad feet. "Are you sure I can wear your Ahatchipan boots again?"
"Yes. Whoa!" A wave rushed up the swollen Twine, fanning outward and licking Runner's belly. "Quickly, Daybreak! Get in!"
They climbed aboard. The next wave was enough to float Runner where he sat, and Boneoak pulled up the anchor. He had to yell to be heard above the wind. "Let me row him!"
Daybreak moved to the seat in the bow. Boneoak took the oars, maneuvering Runner to stay in the center of the river. "The tide will take us when it turns," he shouted. "Are you ready?"
Before Daybreak could answer, the ocean changed its mind. Runner shot forward as though hurled from a waterfall. Daybreak nearly fell backward, and Boneoak almost lost an oar. Watch out! his mouth said as the ocean thundered.
The sky answered.
Daybreak looked up. A pair of fat raindrops hit her cheek. The ocean began to chop and wrestle, and Runner pitched and rolled in alarm.
To the west, lightning flickered.
Boneoak's face was gray. He should've had to row hard to keep pace with the retreating tide, but he had found a strange current that was sucking them away at an effortless, alarming speed. Howltongue and Roartongue rushed past in dark blurs. Crazed waves banged into Runner, exploding upward against the wood and drenching Daybreak within seconds.
"Start bailing!" shouted Boneoak. "The bucket—scoop the water—"
Thunder boomed and ate his words, and an entire second ocean dropped from the sky to join the first. The world vanished beneath a dark gray veil. The frenzied ocean heaved, and Runner crested a mountain of water only to plunge down the other side, into a waiting abyss.
Hold on, Boneoak's mouth might've shouted, behind the rain and chaos, but Daybreak couldn't see. She locked one arm around the seat, the other around the bucket, and bailed. The water struck like an avalanche, ripping away nets, knives, knapsacks of food. Something banged into her knuckles. Runner crested another soaring mountain. The arms of Lion Fjord were nowhere to be seen. As the boat dove into the far abyss, an oar tore free and vanished into the frothing maw.
The next mountain erupted with such force, it tossed Runner into the air. The uniform noise fused into a weightless silence. They floated in nothing. Daybreak stared ahead, down the barrel of gray eternity.
She locked eyes with Boneoak—one hand on the remaining oar, the other gripping a net he'd wrapped around the rear seat, his face white, jaw set, and mouth dead serious.
His eyes blazed with love.
Runner banged down. Daybreak's head struck the seat, the bucket flew from her arm, and the storm around her plunged to full black.
Pain throbbed at her temple.
Daybreak moaned, then sputtered. Her mouth was full of sand.
She opened her eyes. Her right hand, knuckles scraped and bloody, rested in front of her face. Beneath her was a beach, but it was all wrong. The pebbles were tiny, like river-bottom sand, and the sand was gold-brown, not gray.
Daybreak struggled to her knees, breathing shallowly. She was aching and in pain in a hundred different places. Daylight blazed above her. Her clothes were stiff and half-sodden, and chafed badly against her skin.
The movement was too much. Daybreak retched, and the agony in her head flared. Seawater dribbled from her mouth. She retched again.
Empty, she risked raising her head again. The coastline was all wrong, too. Smooth gold stretched south and north, bordered by a shallow swath of land and low brown cliffs.
The arms of Lion Fjord were nowhere in sight.
"Boneoak?" Daybreak called, and winced at the painful dryness in her throat.
She moved to kneeling again. Ten strides away, one of the waterskins lay in the alien sand, half-buried. She crawled to it and took cautious, feeble sips. Other things were half-buried in the sand, too: a net, the bucket, pieces of wood. "Boneoak?"
She hurt everywhere. These awful, chafing clothes. She took everything off, wincing. Salt and sand had gotten trapped beneath the fabric and in many places she was nearly rubbed raw.
She needed to wash with fresh water. She needed to find the food. She needed to find Boneoak. Unsteadily, Daybreak stood and limped up and down the beach, from one end of the wreckage to the other.
She didn't even find his footprints.
At the broken oar, Daybreak collapsed. The distant low tide hissed like a mild breeze through grass, revealing a near-infinite field of featureless, rippling sand. The empty land stretched in all directions, like the sky.
"Hey," called an unfamiliar voice.
Daybreak turned. A man emerged from the savanna at the edge of the beach, a hunting bow in his hand and surprise on his face. As he came closer, Daybreak saw the cluster of bright feathers in his hair and realized how young he was. She also noticed his boots. Ahatchipan hide. Like Boneoak's.
"Hey," he said. He stared at her nudity, at her scrapes and thunderhead bruises, and scanned the wreckage on the beach. "What happened here? Are you all right?"
Daybreak was too overwhelmed to speak.
"Father's Bones," said the man. "And I thought my Traveling was starting out rough. Here—I'll help you salvage your things. Did you go too far down the Snakeback River? Everybody says that estuary is tricky, and you wouldn't be the first to get swept out on a turning tide. You'd be the first to come back, though, that I've ever heard of. It's a miracle you're even alive."
The man set down his pack and withdrew a piece of stonebread. He offered it to her. "Here," he said. "It's stale, but it's what I've got. Looks like you could use it. You're a Traveler, right?"
Daybreak stared at him. He was addressing her casually, like a man, the way the Travelers of Lionfjord used to speak to her, when she would beg them for exotic treasures and stories, and they'd laugh and say, "You just can't wait to grow up and see for yourself, can you?"
Up the beach, Boneoak's empty boots waited, ready to entwine their steps with Daybreak's.
"Yes," said Daybreak slowly, accepting the stonebread. "I am a Traveler."
This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.
In KJ Kabza's debut print collect, sand cats speak, ghost bikes roll, corpses disappear, and hedge mazes are more bewildering than you’ve ever imagined. These 11 fantasy and science fiction stories have been dubbed "A fresh new voice in the genre" (Booklist) and "Bursting with both ideas and emotion" (RT Book Reviews) and will take you deep into other astonishing realities. Cover and interior illustrations by Dante Saunders. Introduction by Gordon Van Gelder.
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