Outside, the children of Thirty Trees laughed and their parents talked, monkeys chattered in the canopy and birds sang to the morning sun. But inside the little house that Jiri shared with Oza, the only sound that mattered was the muted clicks of the clay pots her teacher was packing into his bag.
"They think I'll burn the village down." Jiri swung her feet and her hammock stirred beneath her, an unsteady motion that matched her mood.
"They don't think that." Oza, shaman of Thirty Trees, pulled the ties of his bag tight. "Well, not all of them."
"Most of them." Jiri's feet kicked too hard, and her hammock tipped. Used to its treachery, she dropped out before it could dump her. "They don't trust me. They only made me a Mosa because you wanted them to, and they love you. But I'm not you, Oza."
"Thank the spirits." Oza stood, the short braids of his graying hair brushing against the baskets of dried herbs and roots that hung overhead. "If there were two of me, we'd need a bigger house."`
Jiri frowned up at her teacher. She didn't like being reminded that her growth had stopped well before she had wanted it to, leaving her shorter than any other adult in Thirty Trees. "You'd have to make it bigger, or you'd choke on all the old-man farts," she grumbled.
Oza laughed, and Jiri smiled a little at the sound, but inside...
They don't trust me. Her eyes rose to the cone of their roof. They had replaced the thatch that had burned, but she could still see the charred beams from that night. One nightmare, and I almost killed us.
Oza's laughter faded when he saw her gaze shift, and his face grew serious. "It's been almost a year, Jiri, and that was the last time."
Oza was right. Almost a year had passed since that night Jiri had woken in terror from her dream of being trapped somewhere dark, somewhere deep, and seen the flames birthed by her anger and fear dancing overhead. But she still remembered that surge of joy, of triumph, that had flooded through her at the sight of the fire twisting like red and yellow vines through the thatch. She also remembered how that triumph and joy had crumbled into horror when she realized what she had done.
If it hadn't been raining, if Oza hadn't been ready with his magic, the whole house would have burned. Maybe the whole village.
Jiri had worked so hard since then. Practicing the meditations that Oza had taught her, walking the spirit world with him, learning to control her magic and her ability to call the spirits to her, to bargain with them for their power. She had learned control. The water bucket no longer sat full beside Oza's hammock. But...
The spirit of fire is always there, waiting, so eager for me to call it, so eager to serve. To burn, and destroy. Jiri rubbed her hands together, hands that should have been marked with scars from all the times she had burned herself with her magic as a child. Oza had always been there to heal her, though, to fix the damage that she had caused. And now he was going, leaving her alone for the first time that she could remember. Jiri realized heat was gathering in the fists her hands had made, and the feel of it was comforting and terrifying all at once.
She breathed, in and out, focusing on herself, separating her spirit from the fire, putting its bright magic to the side. When she had control again, she looked up and found Oza's eyes on her, serious and patient.
"Mosa Jiri Maju," he said. "There will always be those who don't trust you. What matters is that you trust yourself. Like I trust you." Oza brushed back Jiri's long braids with a calloused hand. "You are strong in magic. You may be stronger than me someday. That's a dangerous blessing, and there will be times it feels like a curse. But your spirit is good. You will be a great shaman for your people."
"Even if they're not sure they want to be my people?" Jiri asked.
"They may not have that choice," Oza said. He smiled again, though his eyes stayed serious. "You may be shaman to more than this one village, this one tribe, someday. But for the next two days, you are the shaman of Thirty Trees. Which I'm sure will still be standing when I come back from Kibwe."
"Unless that giant crocodile we had three years ago comes back. Or that band of charau-ka that tried to raid us last harvest."
"Why worry small?" Oza said. "Why not both at once?"
"Because then we'd just feed the charau-ka to the crocodile and poison it." Jiri frowned at her teacher. "But what if—"
"What if dragons, or kongamato, or inkanyamba, or any other of the great beasts I've taught you about? What if demons or the Gorilla King himself? Then you can send someone to fetch me. Kibwe's less than a day away. But I think what you need to be ready for is spider-bites, fireweed itch, and arguments over how often you should bless the mango trees. Those are things I know you can handle." Oza hoisted his bag to his shoulder and reached out his hand. Jiri touched his palm with hers, and they gripped fingers for a long moment. Then Jiri let go with a sigh.
"Gods, spirits, and ancestors, may they watch, protect, and guide," Oza said in farewell. But he had barely stepped out the door before a thickset older man stopped him. It was Mazi, the wara of Thirty Trees.
"Shaman! Thank all my ancestors that you have not left yet. I need to speak to you about something urgent."
Jiri twitched, fear flooding into her, and relief that Oza was still there.
"What is it?" Oza asked.
"It is a matter that is best kept quiet," Mazi said. The village's leader stepped close to Oza, and Jiri had to strain to hear him. "Something bit me. In a very, ah, tender place. The itch is unbearable."
"Ah." Oza turned back toward his house, catching Jiri's eye. His face was serious, but his eyes weren't. "Jiri will be able to help with that."
"Yes. Jiri. Well." Mazi shifted uncomfortably, and Jiri noticed how the wara was carefully holding the loose cotton of his mud cloth away from his skin. "Couldn't you—"
"I follow the spirits, Wara," Oza said solemnly. "And they say I must be off. Jiri will heal you." Oza looked once more at Jiri, the corner of his mouth barely crooked into a smile. She frowned back at him, but smoothed her face carefully as she stepped out into the morning sun.
"Wara. Please, let me help. Or would you rather wait until Oza returns?"
Mazi watched the older shaman stride away and sighed. "No. Just... no fire," he said as he shuffled past her, into her house.
Jiri turned her back on all the other villagers who happened to be standing around outside, hiding their smiles with varying degrees of success.
"No fire," she said.
Maybe the giant crocodile wouldn't have been so bad.
∗ ∗ ∗
"I'm sorry," Jiri said. "She's dead."
"Ancestors cry." Dama shifted her baby on her hip and sighed. "White Ear was my best milker, but she was never the smartest goat. Drowning in a puddle, though? I didn't think she was that stupid."
Jiri pulled her feet with some difficulty out of the deep mud and splashed out of the pool that her neighbor had found White Ear bobbing in. "It's surprisingly deep," she said, wringing out the bottom of her shirt. Yesterday, after Oza had left, it had started raining. This was not unusual in the Mwangi, where rained most days this time of year. But this rain had been heavy, and had lasted through the night, only clearing after dawn. Now the jungle steamed and dripped in the morning sun, and the children were sliding through the red mud and playing in the little streams that ran between, and sometimes through, Thirty Trees' houses.
Their parents seemed less amused.
"Neh." Dama shook her head. "Mud everywhere, and now I have to butcher a goat. At least we'll eat well tonight. Join us?"
"Thank you. I—"
"Jiri! Where's Oza?"
Jiri spun when she heard her name and saw the young man running up. Hadzi. The boy that Oza had been teasing her about for the past year, the boy that she had such trouble looking at when he was looking at her, but whom she could stare at quite happily when he was doing anything else. For a moment Jiri was acutely aware that she was covered in mud and goat hair, her braids an unruly tangle around her face. That feeling flashed away, though, when Hadzi splashed to a stop in front of her. He was breathing hard, covered in mud and soaked in water and sweat, and his eyes were wide in his handsome face.
"Oza's still in Kibwe. What's happened?"
"Boro." Hadzi gasped his brother's name. "In trouble. At the river."
"Take me," Jiri said, and she followed when he turned and started to run again.
∗ ∗ ∗
They reached the river too early.
Rain-swollen, the dirt-red water had spread far beyond its usual banks. Jiri splashed through it behind Hadzi, stumbling over hidden brush, hoping not to fall into a hole, eyes searching for crocodiles.
"Here," Hadzi said, rounding the big gaboon tree that marked where the trail they were trying to follow turned toward the river's usual banks. "Oza's gone! I brought Jiri!" he shouted as he disappeared behind the tree's buttress roots.
Jiri thought she might have heard a curse answer Hadzi's shout, but she was too distracted to worry about it when she came around the tree. Below her, the jungle opened up and she could see the river proper. Normally narrow and placid, it had become a red-brown monster, its center churning with foam and drifting debris as it rushed by. Close to them, a great pile of branches and small trees had caught against the massive, moss-covered stone that normally stood at the river's edge. Tangled in that wrack of limbs and roots was a boat, one of the big river ships that ran cargo between Kibwe and the outer villages. Clustered on the stone over the wreck was a group from the village, young men and women mostly. Out on the snag, Jiri spotted Fumo, Hadzi's father, balanced on a tree trunk beside the boat, holding something that lay half in the water.
Jiri splashed her way down toward the stone. The water rose rapidly, over her knees, to her waist, almost up to her arms, and she cursed her shortness as the current shoved at her and she had to half-swim to reach the outcrop. Hands grabbed her when she got close, yanking her out of the dangerous water, but she didn't feel much safer perched on the moss-covered rock. Still, the stone was much more certain than the unsteady wrack of logs. Carefully, Jiri stepped out onto a broken tree trunk. Then she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled forward, moving from trunk to branch to trunk toward Fumo, ignoring the constant shaking of the brush beneath her.
The man clung to a thick log, arms wrapped around Boro, holding him up. Boro's teeth were locked in pain, and he was twisted at a strange angle, his right leg under the water. Caught, Jiri realized, trapped by some shifting branch. Without his father's hold, he would be jerked down and crushed between the logs or drowned.
Fumo looked at her, his arms shaking. "I can't hold him like this much longer."
Gods and crocodiles, Jiri thought, staring at Boro. What would Oza do?
What can I do?
Then one of the women crouching on the stone behind them shouted.
Jiri looked up and saw it, a black-green shape being swept along by the river's current, but angling toward them. It could have been a fallen tree—it was big enough—but she knew what it was immediately.
"Gods and crocodiles," she swore again, watching the massive reptile swim toward them.
Coming Next Week: River dangers in Chapter Two of Gary Kloster's "The Gem."
Gary Kloster is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Firesoul, featuring the further adventures of Jiri. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Apex, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future 25. Find him online at garykloster.com.
Illustration by Davi Blight.