Every year in January, Cast of Wonders highlights some of our favorite episodes from the previous year. It’s a great chance for us to take a bit of a breather, and let you, our listeners, catch up on any missed back episodes with new commentary from a different member of the crew.
Today’s episode is hosted by community manager Dani Daly.
Earn Your Breath
by Jaime O. Mayer
Liith had fought the Snake Island raiders every summer since her fifteenth year and had yet to taste defeat. She had dueled the boat-men of the north with their fish-belly white skin and won the pair of metal knives envied by many a man in her village. Yet, it was the sight of the latch on the cookshack door that filled her with dread. Gray Stone’s village elders said fate could not be changed, and she would rather die than prove them right. But each passing day brought her twentieth year closer, and her throat remained bare of a breath mark.
No, she still had time. A few days, but while time remained so too did hope. Liith shook her head, as much in defiance as to clear away her uncertainty. Squaring her shoulders, she marched to the cookshack door, a small parcel of food clutched in one hand.
The shack was a hastily made addition tacked onto the village’s cookhouse proper. The rough-cut planks joined at odd angles, providing meager protection from the elements. A slab of oak served as an ill-fitting door, its simple hook and latch installed at eye-height more to keep nosy children out than to keep the poor creature inside in.
A plain lock that afforded peace, both to Gray Stone and the disgraced villager within. And, it served as a reminder of the inescapable fate that befell any who disappointed Mother Breathless.
A possible fate, but it wouldn’t be Liith’s.
She lifted the latch and crept inside, pausing beside the door to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light. A shriveled woman huddled in the far corner of the shack, a threadbare blanket hanging from her bony shoulders.
Yella. The only villager who’d failed to earn their breath mark from Gray Stone’s deity. The thick blue circle from the top of the throat to the collarbone with a wavy line through the center signaled Mother Breathless’s decision that one had earned their place in the village, going from dependent child to providing adult. But instead of a breath mark, the beige skin on Yella’s throat had sloughed off in large flakes, replaced by wrinkled gray flesh. Shunned by the village, she’d withdrawn from all contact. The once vibrant woman Liith remembered from her youth had slowly been reduced to the husk that sat before her as despair claimed Yella’s spirit.
Liith knelt beside Yella and offered the meat pie she’d brought, but the woman gave no sign of noticing. Tearing off a small piece, Liith placed it inside Yella’s mouth as gently as she could. Yella chewed reflexively, but after a few pieces she choked and refused to eat more.
Frustrated, Liith sat back on her heels. It wouldn’t be long now before the pitiful woman stopped eating entirely. Bile rose in her throat, followed by a rush of anger. How could Yella have given up so easily? Why didn’t she fight?
Will I? Liith’s insides squirmed at the treacherous inner thought. Easy for her to be angry, but would she be different when the time came? Her twentieth year, the same age when Yella failed to earn her breath.
The door creaked open and Tawn, her childhood friend, slipped in. “I thought I saw you go in here.”
Liith put the remaining food in Yella’s palm before joining him near the door.
Tawn opened his mouth to speak, closed it, glanced first at Yella and then back at Liith. The look was familiar and full of unspoken words she never wanted to hear again.
“Liith,” he began.
“We will not.”
“Why won’t you let me help you? Do you want to end up like her?” Tawn jerked a thumb toward Yella. “We don’t have to be bound to one another. I’m not offering because I-I want…it’s not like that.”
The look on his face wrenched her heart. She’d been horrified and incensed by turns when he’d suggested their pairing several days earlier. And she’d been afraid; the direness of her situation looming. Yet, as she looked into his eyes and saw his frustration on her behalf, the anger vanished.
“I just haven’t become what she expects yet,” Liith said.
“No woman will earn her breath while childless. May I die gasping.” Tawn quickly tapped his throat, his breath mark visible despite the meager light, in apology to the deity. “You should’ve earned it by now. You haven’t and you won’t.”
“The elders don’t know how-”
“They don’t know what it takes for the men.”
But everyone knew for the women.
Liith stared at him, mouth open but silent. Gray Stone couldn’t afford to turn down a capable defender, but the warriors never welcomed her. Practicality forced admittance, but tradition withheld acceptance.
Her breath mark would signal change, she knew it.
Tawn sighed. “You’re never going to earn your mark by being you. Mother Breathless wants more children to breathe through. I can give you that.”
He voiced all her fears, and they hurt more as his words than as thoughts running loose in her head. She didn’t hate children; Mother Breathless knew that she loved her nephew. But she’d never wanted her own, and the impression that she was unworthy while childless rankled. She had fears, but she had pride too, and it wouldn’t let her accept Tawn’s plan. She didn’t want a child, or Tawn, or anyone. She wanted her breath.
“You’re family to me.” She reached out to squeeze his hand. “I know what it means for you to offer, but I can’t earn my breath like that. I won’t believe She’s so hateful.”
“Aren’t you pathetic,” a voice sounded on the other side of the door.
Liith pulled it open to find Benned, the village headman’s son, on the other side.
He sneered at them. “Thought I’d find you two coupling like dogs. Or are you here for inspiration?”
Liith’s hand balled into a fist. Benned was a spindly youth, all of fourteen years, but still, he was the headman’s son.
“Say that again-”
Tawn cut her off. “Your father send you to me for remedial lessons? I saw you practicing earlier.” He pointed to the sling hanging from Benned’s belt.
Benned flushed, but he didn’t dare disparage Tawn’s peerless aim. Instead, he glared at Liith. “There won’t be handouts for worthless culls when I’m headman.” He spat at their feet, then ran off, disappearing around the cookhouse’s corner.
“Auntie Liith!” a boy called.
A genuine smile brightened Liith’s face as her nephew, Danna, galloped up: eleven years old and full of an energy she swore had passed her over in childhood. His head was crowned with a braided grass garland–decorations for the upcoming feast, no doubt.
Though over sixty people called Gray Stone home, for the last three days several dozen warriors and boys in their fifteenth year had been away on the annual Manhood Hunt searching for boar. With the celebratory feast scheduled for that night, the remaining villagers busied themselves with preparations and paid no attention to a curly haired boy running amok with a liberated decoration.
Danna barreled into Tawn, and the two exchanged playful punches as Liith ushered them both outside and closed the shack door.
Danna eyed the latch. “When will you earn your breath, Auntie?”
“When Mother Breathless finds me worthy, same as everyone else.” Liith tapped him on the nose. “Same as she will for you one day.”
“Mama says you have to have babies first.”
“That might be hard for you then.”
“Not me, you!” He waved his arms.
“Danna, stop bothering your aunt.” Lisse walked up, a basket filled with smoked fish in one hand. With her long waves of chestnut-colored hair and golden skin, Lisse made Liith feel weather-burned and coarse in her presence. “Elder Stone is telling stories at the Circle. I’d like you to go listen.”
“Fine,” Danna sighed. “Auntie, can we practice the knife throwing later?”
Liith started to say “yes,” but Lisse’s firm headshake cut her off. “We have the feast tonight.”
Danna opened his mouth to argue, but he saw the severity in his mother’s eyes. He knew better than to engage. A grim smile formed on Liith’s mouth; she should be so wise.
“We’ll get some throws in at dawn.” She winked. Danna whooped in excitement and skipped away before his mother could counter. As her sister turned to face her, Liith instinctively tensed for a fight before catching herself. Muscles and reflexes never protected against a lecture from her older sibling.
“I’ll make sure he gets there,” Tawn said before beating a hasty retreat.
“Why are you doing this?” Lisse could inject frost into words in a manner Liith longed to master.
“Spending time with my nephew?”
Lisse glowered. “Don’t play coy with me, little sister. Danna idolizes you. The least you could do is set a good example.” She walked into the cookhouse.
Liith followed her to a table. “Teaching him practical skills is a bad example?”
“Leave that to men!” Lisse pulled a fish from the basket and began cutting it into portions. “Today he said he wants to grow up to be big and strong like his auntie.”
“That’s a bad thing?”
“Yes!” Lisse slammed the knife onto the table. “My son wishes to grow up and be like a woman.”
“He doesn’t mean-”
“Why can’t you act like you’re supposed to? Stop playing the warrior. Then you’ll earn your breath.”
“Act a woman, eh? Shall I spread my legs for your man then? What does the sire matter so long as I produce?”
“Don’t be crude,” Lisse said. “You know what she expects. Couple with Tawn and be done with it. You’re not likely to get anyone else.”
“And you call me crude?”
Lisse glanced at the wall the cookhouse shared with Yella’s shack. “I wonder how long the Mother will stand your selfishness.”
“I want my breath, but I want to truly earn it.”
Lisse shrugged. “Not badly enough it seems.”
A scream built, then died in Liith’s throat. Anger solved nothing with her narrow-minded sister.
“You’re wrong.” Liith stalked away, followed by her sister’s disdainful laugh.
Liith’s arms trembled with pent up anger, vicious remarks swirling unspoken in her head. How did Lisse always win their verbal battles? She had a way of winding up the rage in Liith to a point that all the smart retorts jammed together in an attempt to spill out, rendering her fuming but speechless.
She followed the outer wall, using the storage sheds at the back for cover, stopping once she reached the smaller gate and lone watch tower at the village rear. The back of Gray Stone’s valley opened out onto a wide river, the gently rippling surface belying the swift currents beneath.
With assaults from this end rare, the sole tower had fallen into disrepair; a lowly station to serve watch. Liith’s eyebrows rose in surprise when she recognized the figure sitting in the tower, facing the village rather than the water, was Benned. Even privileged sons had to do chores.
“Already on watch?”
Benned’s eyes flicked down at her before he sniffed and pointedly resumed looking elsewhere. “No task is too small for a headman.”
Liith swallowed her snort. “Your father must be proud.”
Benned would only be on watch in this dull post because Headman Karan did believe that a leader should set an example for his people. She suspected that when Benned became headman the tower would go unmanned.
“He is proud of all who do their part for the village. May Mother Breathless honor those who share her values.” Benned didn’t bother to cover his scorn.
“I look forward to bathing in her honor then,” Liith snapped back. She turned and headed for the shoreline.
Shouting in the distance ground her to a halt before she’d reached the water’s edge. The shouts mingled with screams. A child’s shriek, high-pitched and terrified, sent her racing back. These were not the excited cries she expected to herald the return of the Hunt.
“What is it?” she called up to Benned. A breeze picked up, carrying to them the scent of smoke.
“Raiders. With fire!” Benned rushed to the tower’s ladder and jumped down two rungs at a time. “There must be twenty of them at the front gate.”
Liith’s skin had prickled all over at the mention of their murderous island neighbors bearing flames, but she caught Benned by the arm before he could run past. “You’re on watch.”
He tried to shrug out of her grip, eyes narrowing first in surprise, then in embarrassment-fueled anger when she held fast.
“You have a duty to watch this post. They could be attacking on two fronts.” Liith kept her tone as calm and non-accusatory as she could muster.
“Ugly sow,” Benned hissed, freeing himself and swinging at her face. She stepped back, letting his fist glide past her nose. She raised her hands up in a placating manner.
“I am the headman’s son, my village is under attack, and you want me to sit here?” He ran past her. “Watch it yourself.”
She stared after him. The screams and clamor of fighting jolted Liith into action. She shook her head, both at Benned’s folly and her own lapse in focus, then went to the watch tower’s ladder and clambered up. No task too small indeed.
She looked down to see Tawn running toward her, using the wall for cover. He bled from a small cut on his shoulder, but otherwise looked unharmed.
“Help protect the gate!” Her eyes returned to scanning the water. The raiders from Snake Island had once before tried paddling down the shoreline, and though she longed to join the main fight, she wouldn’t be caught unaware.
“They need you more than me.” Tawn stopped at the foot of the tower to catch his breath.
Liith’s gaze lingered on a dead tree floating down the river. She leaned forward, squinting for a better view. Realization caused her hands to break out into a cold sweat. “I think we’re both where we need to be.”
They changed places, and as the sharpest eyes in the village, Tawn quickly confirmed her suspicions.
“It’s moving against the current,” he said, alarm causing his voice to rise. “I see hands!”
Being right and making Benned look the fool quickly lost its glow. Common sense and some tactics meant nothing to a dead person.
Liith walked forward, situating herself between the tower and the river’s edge.
The log inched closer.
“Liith!” Tawn called. She ignored him.
Faces with slit nostrils reminiscent of snakes–features gifted by their own deity–broke the surface, spitting aside the hollow reeds the raiders had used to breathe. Their eerie yellow eyes brightened at the sight of the two lonely defenders, and their leader smiled hungrily. Six men. She heard Tawn blowing the distress signal on the watch tower’s horn, and thought she heard an answering call. Or was it hopeful imagination? From the sounds of the battle raging behind her only a fool would depend upon the warriors making a fortuitous return.
She hadn’t survived five years of raids by being foolish.
“Liith, get up here!”
She shook her head. “Pull up the ladder. Watch my back.”
“We can hold out up here.” Worry strained Tawn’s voice.
She couldn’t have that. Liith glanced back and gave him a thin smile. “You’re the best with a sling in the whole village. I’ve got the ground, you watch my back.” She spoke calmly, words delivered in a manner that brooked no argument.
Tawn’s eyes closed then opened after a pause, not so much a blink as a gathering of wits. He picked up his sling and gave it an experimental twirl. Liith faced the water. The raiders swam closer, their feet straining to reach the bottom.
I don’t need to win, she thought, her hands settling on the prized knives sheathed at her waist. Only endure.
Her palms embraced their handles with the familiarity of old friends, one to skin, another to bone. Fair tools for a bloodletting day.
The last traces of nervousness faded, replaced by a warm, gentle pressure that enveloped her, dimming the sounds of the fighting. She was apart from it, the steady beating of her heart both a sensation and a sound in her ears.
Liith stepped back into a fighting stance with poise born from hours of practice and passion.
The raiders swaggered ashore, pulling their weapons from the snakeskin wrappings they called clothing. She could sense their overconfidence, all quick judgment and presumptions based on her looks. It had been months since the last attack–how quickly they forgot her. Then again, tales struggled home when there were no survivors.
Five fanned out into a tight semi-circle, leaving the last digging within the branches of the log. Liith left him for Tawn and his sling, focusing instead on the men approaching her. One raider on her left had a boat-man’s spear of polished wood capped by a metal blade. She gave him a predatory smile of her own.
Leg muscles tightening as her knees bent, she gathered herself. The energy released at a whisper of asking and Liith shot forward to meet the raider. Her body knew the extent of its reach and how to deliver the desired force. She knew when she could ask for a burst of speed, or drop to a crouch and trust her knees to hold. There was no surprise or disappointment at how quickly she could explode up or lash out.
Using the raiders’ complacency to her advantage, Liith slid around the metal spearhead, turning it aside with her slender, tapered boning knife with more strength than the spear’s wielder expected. The short, wide blade of her skinning knife plunged into his chest, its hooked end tearing a flap of skin free on its way out. The boning knife arced back to kiss his throat. A passionate kiss, quick and vigorous and demanding, it left a spray of blood on the ground. His body followed shortly after.
The raiders were stunned by her skill and ferocity, but only for the space of a breath. A stone from Tawn’s sling downed the man to Liith’s right with a solid thunk akin to knocking sharply on a piece of wood, but meatier. A quick peek over the shoulders of the remaining three raiders revealed the sixth man face down in the river.
The raiders raised their stone-blade knives, hisses in their own tongue pouring from their lip-less mouths. Yellow eyes narrowed with rage, they charged her in unison.
Her knives swirled through the air, fluid and relentless as they sought a mark. Liith circled along with the raiders, twisting and sidestepping their jabbing blades. Even as a tip struck true, she shrugged off the little pains, only the ghost of a falter in her step. She moved with a dancer’s powerful grace. Her fists wrought death in her wake.
As she blocked one raider’s knife and forced another to stumble away to escape her backhand, Liith allowed herself a tiny inward smile. They didn’t expect her to match them in strength, were dismayed to their deaths by her speed. She felt cheated when one of Tawn’s stones came out of the sky, leaving only a pair from the original six to contend with her flashing knives.
They retreated a few steps, slit nostrils flaring. One’s tongue darted out, and Liith wondered if it was true that the Snake Islanders could taste the air. If they could smell her resolve.
A quick glance passed between them. One raider leapt forward, shrieking, as the other turned and ran for the log. Liith parried the attack, landing several cuts as she tried to edge past. He didn’t pause, continuing to screech while attacking with both blade and fist. He fought with the desperate, unburdened fervor of a man who knows he will die.
The splash of a rock hitting water broke through her battle fog; Tawn had missed. A growl rumbled from deep in her throat, her lips curling back in a snarl for the suicidal raider. A faint burn seared deep within her muscles, signaling her body’s needs and inevitable limitations.
They came together with the dull thump of flesh smacking flesh, roaring and snapping at each other. The raider twisted and spun, trying to be unpredictable about where he would stab.
A spark at the edge of her vision pulled her focus long enough for the raider to slip under her defenses. His knife carved a stinging line across her collarbone to the center of her breasts, regaining her full attention but with an added urgency: fire.
Her wound burned, yet even as fatigue taxed her speed, she could sense in that regard she wasn’t alone. The stone knife faltered, moving with the wavering taint of exhaustion. Liith struck hard with the sturdier hilt of her skinning knife, urging her muscles to lend their dwindling strength. The raider’s arm shuddered as he blocked, and he had nothing left to stop her follow through. A deft upward thrust of her boning knife through his lower ribs ended their personal battle.
Something whooshed past her. Liith turned, eyes fixing on a glowing, melon-sized bundle in flight, headed toward the nearest storage shed located on the other side of the wall. Cold fear clenched her stomach. The bundle might not make it that far, but dry grass mats and decorations for the feast seemed to adorn every open space in the village. If the bundle scattered its fiery contents far enough, its destination wouldn’t matter. And she couldn’t stop it.
A stone lit into the bundle, splitting it open to spray burning debris onto the ground a safe half dozen paces short.
Exhaling shakily in relief, Liith turned for the last raider. His yellow eyes were wide as plates in surprise at Tawn’s uncanny aim. He looked at her, a flint and chip of steel still clutched in his hands.
Before Liith could take a step, an arrow whistled past her to bury itself in the raider’s chest. A gasp pushed past his lips, one hand rising to brush against the wood before he sank to the ground.
Liith whirled around, eyes searching for the source.
Benned stood at the gate with several of the village warriors surrounding him. He lowered his bow, a triumphant smirk on his face. She glanced back at Tawn, who jubilantly shook his fist. The warriors gathered around Benned cheered, their cries echoing throughout the village.
Headman Karan walked forward, raising his spear for silence. He stopped at the foot of the watch tower. Tawn jumped down and Karan clapped him on the shoulder. “Glory be to the sharp eyes of Tawn!”
Another cheer and applause met his words. Tawn flushed, and he murmured something as he gestured in Liith’s direction.
Karan slowly turned to Liith, who stood awkwardly in the middle between the village and the tower, bloody knives still in hand. His eyebrows raised slightly, giving his gaze the flat, arrogant impression often emulated by his son.
“Praise also to Liith for recognizing her duty to aid the warriors.”
A scattering of hesitant clapping.
“Glory be to my son, whose arrow saved us from ruin!” Karan walked back to the gate, voice returning to its thunderous tone. Gray Stone erupted with cheers, fists pumping the air as the villagers expressed their joy for a suitable subject.
Liith pressed her tunic against the bleeding slash on her chest, fighting the urge to spit. Tawn hurried to her side, shrugging helplessly in answer to her look.
Benned raised one hand for silence. His mouth opened, a word starting to form, when his back arched. His head tipped back to bare his throat.
The breath mark bloomed across his exposed flesh. The circle traced around the knob on his throat, then a darker wavy line dashed through its center.
Benned straightened, mouth open and panting as if he had come back from a sprint. His fingertips caressed his throat. He leapt into the air and screamed. A scream of triumph and vindication, and even a hint of relief.
It was a sound Liith dreamt of making. A wave of numbness washed over her and she threw herself into its deadening embrace. She shut her eyes as the villagers cheered and Karan raised his son’s arm in the air.
Where is mine? How do I still disappoint you?
There was no answer.
Liith recoiled from the comforting hand Tawn offered. Sheathing her knives, she started walking, not caring the direction so long as it was away.
Her name cracked across the air. She didn’t stop, but Benned soon overtook her. “Come and celebrate the earning of my breath!”
Her eyes leapt to the blue mark on his throat, and her lips curled back in a soundless snarl. In the span of a quick breath, realization struck. No, she was not like Yella. There was no despair in her heart, for she no longer desired a mark of her own. But she would fight for what Yella had once been, against the village and Mother Breathless and the mindset that a woman’s breath meant only one thing.
Benned seized her by the arm. “You-”
Liith swept her left leg out, knocking him off balance. Her palm slammed into his chest. Benned fell unceremoniously to the ground. He stared up at her, mouth flapping like a surprised fish.
The village went deathly still. She palmed her boning knife and advanced a step, noting how Benned and the crowd alike cringed.
Liith smiled. Finally, a bit of respect. She sneered, letting her hand dawdle as she sheathed the knife.
May you die gasping, Breathless, Liith thought.
Her breath caught in her throat, a sputter escaping her lips as the flesh of her neck went ice cold. Tawn rushed to her side, his fingers unsure on her arm. A feeling like an invisible hand clenching around her throat caused Liith to choke. She reached up to claw at the presence, but as suddenly as it had come, the pressure building in her head and the iciness vanished. She tipped her head back and greedily inhaled. Horrified gasps drew her eyes to the two men.
Benned regained his feet. “Mother Breathless curses you!” He fled to the village.
Tawn remained, but he stood tensely, mouth agape. Cursed by Mother Breathless? Liith laughed with darkened glee at the look of grief in her friend’s eyes, knowing exactly what he could see. Mother Breathless had finally given her a mark: a black smear across her throat.
That settled things.
Liith squeezed Tawn’s hand in the only farewell she could bear. Then she turned to face the village, eyes questing after her nephew. He stood near the gate, Lisse’s arm holding him tightly in place. Liith nodded at him before she walked away. She didn’t have the words to explain this moment to a child, but perhaps one day.
Tawn hastened alongside her, but she wouldn’t slow now, not even for him.
“We’re family, remember?” A ghost of his impish grin returned.
Liith smiled, her heart lifting. “Then let’s find a new one.”
About the Author
Jaime O. Mayer is a Korean American adoptee, tea drinker, and avid hobby collector living in the Seattle area with her husband and their two cats. Her fiction has appeared in Cast of Wonders and Cicada Magazine. You can find her online at jaimeomayer.com and on Twitter as @JaimeOMayer.
About the Narrator
Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on Twitter or Instagram.
About the Artist
Geneva is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.