This prequel to Shamar is set at the same time as the events at the end of Sanguine (book two), and does contain some spoilers for that book.
by Carolyn Denman
The body lay on some sort of fabric stretched across a metal frame. Beltana watched from above as Annie and Noah carried it between the trees to a small clearing. Climbing through the canopy made it easy to follow them without being noticed. After all, she’d been playing that game for too many seasons to count. Also, they seemed very distracted, which wasn’t surprising given that the person they were carrying had stopped breathing. Strange. Lainie was usually so careful to avoid injuries. For some inexplicable reason she always seemed to avoid eating the Living Fruit. So what game had Lainie played which had broken her body again? Not such a messy death, this time. There were no obvious wounds.
Lainie was wearing strange garments, similar to Noah’s. Sturdy leg coverings, and something softer covering her torso, with a painting of a skull on it, covered with flowers. What a novel idea, to adorn a person’s charred bones with flowers after they had chosen to cross over. It reminded her of ancient rituals from another place, far from this valley. Perhaps keeping the painting on her garments was Lainie’s way of telling people what she wanted when she chose to cross over. Was that what this was about? Had Lainie chosen to move on to the next realm? Beltana scratched her ear. It didn’t seem likely. She could usually tell for a few seasons before someone made that decision. She could hear it in the way they told stories about others that had left this realm. As if they longed to see them again. She could see it in the way they watched the stars. Surely Lainie wasn’t ready to move across yet.
Sure enough, Noah began to look for a Tree-of-Life the moment they laid the body down. He seemed agitated. Rushed. What was the hurry? He spotted the tree that Beltana happened to be perched in, but spat out some sharp-sounding words when he realised all the Fruit on the lower branches had already been picked. He stripped off a couple of half-formed buds, turning to Annie with a question in his voice. She shook her head and signalled for him to climb up to get a ripe one. Noah scrambled up the trunk so frantically that he managed to get both his shirt and hair tangled in the thick foliage. More sharp words left his mouth and he tugged so hard on his shirt that it ripped. The tree shook enough that Beltana nearly lost her grip, so she dropped a piece of ripe purple Fruit down before Noah could pull the entire tree over with them both in it. He didn’t even look up to question his luck, apparently assuming that his own antics had shaken the Fruit off its branches. Pity. She always liked the startled look on Noah’s face whenever she appeared unexpectedly.
Silver butterflies danced between the fronds of tall grass, obscuring Beltana’s view as Annie fed the Fruit to her daughter. Nothing seemed to happen. How long had Lainie been stopped for? The effects of the Living fruit were usually immediate, unless the person’s body was badly damaged. Perhaps it was different for the Shamar. As they all waited, the butterflies landed on a rock. Instead of embracing each other in their usual sleepy blanket formation, they sat with wings held up like new petals. A gentle vigil for the person lost between worlds.
Annie tore off another crisp section of Living Fruit with her teeth, broke it into smaller pieces and poked them down Lainie’s throat like a mother bird feeding her chick, while Noah started talking to Lainie in the same language Annie had taught Dallmin. English? She’d only half been paying attention whenever Dallmin had tried to teach it to her. That man was obsessed with learning new languages. As Lainie remained unresponsive, Noah’s phrases got louder and faster, making it clear he wanted her to wake up. He took the remaining Fruit from Annie and shoved the entire thing into Lainie’s mouth, his hands shaking. Annie picked up Lainie’s hand and kissed her knuckles. A silver tear fell like a stray droplet from the River. What a curious thing. Even more curious was the way Annie’s voice trembled as she began to sing the lullaby. That tune. So familiar. Such precious memories. Beltana remembered singing it to both Lainie and Noah as babies, as she had done to all the Shamar babies over the countless seasons. Back when the Shamar used to come and go like froglets hopping between land and river.
Finally, Lainie began to stir and Noah let out a curdled cry. He laughed and sobbed and hugged Annie so hard they toppled over into the tall grass. Lainie sat up, crossed her ankles and ate the rest of the Fruit that had been jammed between her teeth while Noah spoke to her in a tone of voice that Beltana had rarely heard. His rant continued as Lainie grabbed Annie’s wrist and tugged her toward the River for a swim. The rant only ended when Lainie shoved him off the riverbank.
Beltana hadn’t always paid attention when Dallmin tried to teach her English. Yet what she’d learned was enough. She dropped down from the Tree and slipped through the feather-stalk bushes that lined the riverbank. She needed to talk to Nayn. He would probably want to know that Lainie had been killed by another person. On purpose.