The Pine Tree’s Shadow
In the moonless, starless time before dawn, I crept out of my family’s house to climb the ancient pine tree that towered above our village. I was only seven years old, and still scared of the dark, but I made myself leave the warm safety of our home for the vast, terrible world outside. In my mind, I had no other choice. I had made a promise to myself and to the spirits, placing my life, my fate, my future in their hands. I was sure that to turn back was to die.
Rags of mist drifted along the ground like ghosts, and the sky was a dim, threatening presence arching over the shadowed land. Springtime had come, but nighttime still held the lingering chill of winter. Every second step I took seemed to bring with it a heart-stopping noise or the swift passage of some imaginary monster, its fangs and claws a flicker of cold light whisking past the corner of my eye. I wanted to abandon my purpose at least a hundred times before I even reached the roots of the colossal tree, but whenever the urge to flee seized me, I whispered, “I can do this. I have to do this!” and forced myself to recall the reason I’d first decided to conquer the looming pine.
From the depths of my fear, I summoned up a vision of my big brother Aki. I had many brothers living then, three older than me, two still infants. The older ones were my mother’s, the babies were the sons of Yukari and Emi, Father’s junior wives, but Aki was my favorite. Even though seven years separated us, he always made time to play with me, and to tell me wonderful stories about the wild places beyond our village fields.
He knew those outlying lands well. At fourteen, Aki was counted as a man among our people, face honorably marked with his first protective tattoo, free to roam wherever he liked. How I longed for that freedom!
Freedom wasn’t the only part of his life that I coveted. Even if he hadn’t been respected as our clan chief’s oldest son, he still would have been honored and valued as a gifted hunter. His keen eye and shrewd skill as a tracker of game filled many bellies. The tender meat of the rabbits, deer, and red-faced pheasants that he caught added savor to our rice. I envied him for the way that everyone praised him when he returned from yet another successful venture into the mountains, but not as much as I envied him for how proud Mama looked when she heard our kin cheering his name. Even Father’s stern face would soften into one of his rare smiles when Aki came home. I think I envied him for that most of all.
I wanted the cheers, the admiring looks, and Father’s smile. If the only way to earn those things was to become a great hunter like my oldest brother, that was the path I’d take too, and I was sure there was only one way for me to do it: Aki would have to teach me. But . . . would he agree?
Foolishly, I thought I knew the answer before I even spoke one word about it to him. My dreams of the future were never small. I imagined learning so much of the hunter’s art, and so well, that I outpaced him, leaving him in my shadow. I saw myself hauling home impossible amounts of game, stealing away all the praise and admiration that had once been his. Surely Aki would see the same inevitable future and refuse to teach me the hunter’s way, to protect his own place in our clan! I had everything all figured out, start to finish, and none of it real.
What childish imaginings. But I was a child. I loved my brother, and feared he would stop loving me if I asked him to help fulfill my dream. And so I kept my ambitions to myself, holding back my request until frustration finally got the better of me. Had it been only yesterday that I’d found the boldness to speak? As our family sat cross-legged together on the high wooden platform just outside our door, watching the day begin to fade into evening, I took a deep breath, flung myself onto Aki’s back, and draped my arms around his neck, crying, “Big Brother, I want to be like you! Teach me how to hunt, pleeeeeease? I’ll do a good job, but don’t worry, I promise I won’t be too much better than you.” I kissed his cheeks and his ears a dozen times, a ploy that had always worked before whenever I asked him for anything.
Not this time.
Excerpted from Spirit's Princess by Esther Friesner. Copyright © 2012 by Esther Friesner. Excerpted by permission of Bluefire, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.