1. They’re back
Teresa crept forward on silent feet, keeping her eyes trained on her prey grazing peacefully in the clearing ahead. Her leather boots absorbed any sound she might have made. A fur lined hood held back her curly brown hair, and the ash covering her hands and face disguised her scent and made her brown skin even darker.
Blind in the third eye on the side of its head, the deer would be an easy kill as she approached on its blind side from downwind, stepping lightly with an arrow fitted to her bow. Its soft brown coat was ruffled by the breeze as it chewed contentedly on the dew-covered grass, blissfully unaware of her presence and its approaching death. She had been lucky to spot the deer's tracks in the dried mud by the stream and had been tracking it for hours. Bringing it down would be good for the village – there had been fewer than was usual this season. Once she killed it she may need help to bring it in, but her brother's home away from the village was near enough. He would help her, and not take credit for the kill himself as other hunters older than her might do.
Confident in her position the young hunter took aim, drawing back her bowstring. She could make it a clean shot, put her arrow through its eye. If that did not kill it then she would finish it with her knife and end its pain quickly. As she was about to let her arrow fly, a roar like thunder filled the air, a sound so loud that it felt like a real physical presence pressing down on her from above. Her arrow flew off course past the deer which took off at a gallop from the unexpected disturbance. She watched it disappear and then looked up to see that the top branches of the trees shook, and beyond that, something falling from the sky. Something…she didn't know what.
Teresa pulled back her hood and raised her mask while staring up at the sky, wondering if her eyes were playing tricks on her. She had seen shooting stars before, but this was something else. Forgetting her annoyance at losing her kill, she quickly slung her bow over her shoulder and climbed up the nearest tree for a better view. Perched with well-practiced balance on one of the slender branches near the tree top, but still under the cover of the canopy, she stared up in shock as the thing came down. Whatever it was it was big, covered in red and orange flames and was coming down fast! More flames erupted from the bottom of it as it drew nearer and slowed just a few moments before hitting the ground less than half a mile from her, sending a tremor through the forest that she was sure would be felt for miles.
The young warrior kept a firm grip on her perch as the tree shook and swayed from the impact. It felt like an earthquake, but this…this was something far more interesting. Every village in the mountains would have seen this monstrosity falling from the sky. She knew that she should keep her distance, head back to her village to find out what their leader's orders were. After all, she was not a scout, at least not yet. But whatever that thing was she wanted to see it for herself. Using the trees, moving swiftly from branch to branch, she made her way to where the thing had crashed. She moved more cautiously as she drew near, and the smell of burned wood and something else she couldn't name permeated the air, burning her nose and leaving a bad taste in the back of her throat.
The object had landed in a clearing. The ground around it was scorched, the grass and shrubs burned away. Broken trees lay scattered where they had fallen, smoke curling off of them. The thing that had caused the damage stood not as tall as the highest trees but still imposing in a place where it clearly did not belong. It was large, bulky and made of metal from the look of it, the glint of the sunlight reflected off the surface giving off a harsh glare. It was some kind of machine.
The forest seemed to hold its breath, not yet settled from this intrusion that had come crashing down. There was no sound or movement from the machine. Teresa decided to wait near the edge of the clearing where she could watch and still be out of sight.
And she was aware that she was not the only one watching. Glancing to her left she caught a glimpse of a figure moving through the branches of the trees – her brother, Lincoln. She had only seen a glimpse but she knew that it was him, she knew how he moved. That was confirmed when he came closer and silently signaled for her to stay low and keep quiet. Teresa was glad that he didn't try to send her away, and she wasn't surprised that he had come to investigate himself. Her brother was a scout for their Clan. He'd taught her how to move through the trees without stirring a leaf. She put her mask back into place and pulled her hood up. Taking care to make sure that even her breathing was quiet, she waited and watched to see what would happen.
She did not have to wait too long as the metal beast gave a loud groan and with a hiss, part of it unfolded and thudded to the ground, making an opening. Putting a hand to her knife, she took a calming breath to prepare for whatever was coming. She was prepared to fight if she had to, or to run, to warn the Clan if the appearance of this thing was some kind of new threat. But what she saw inside the machine – she didn’t know yet if it was a threat...but it was certainly unexpected. She’d heard stories before about Praimfaya, the Great Fire that ended the world a hundred years ago, and the people who had escaped by going to the stars, but she’d never given stories about Sky-People much thought…until now.
Because now the young warrior could see that there were people inside the machine, this ship that had fallen from the sky. People who appeared as shocked at what they were seeing as she was. Those that stood in the doorway were staring around with open mouths and expressions that could only be described as wonder, amazement, awe...
One of them, a girl with smooth pale skin and straight brown hair, broke from the pack and stepped forward. Standing in front of the others, the sky-girl paused to draw in a deep breath, and a smile broke out across her face.
Teresa took her eyes off the girl for a moment to look to her brother. He had his book out and was drawing something in it, his eyes barely going to the page as he watched the strangers.
Looking back at the strange ship, she saw that the sky-girl was walking forward cautiously as her people behind her stood watching. She paused again before taking the last step off of the part of the ship that had opened, onto the ground. Her grin stretched wider as she looked up to the sky. Reaching her arms up the sky-girl screamed out, “We’re Back Bitches!”
Her shout cut through the silence. Teresa was surprised to understand the sky-girl’s words but didn’t have time to think on it as the rest of her people came pouring out of their ship, shouting and running in every direction. They were celebrating, excited, triumphant…loud and arrogant. She smirked as she watched them. What did they think they had won?
One of the strangers ran right beneath her hiding place, going off into the woods while another girl called after her, “Emily, wait!” The girl kept running, ignoring her friend, her smooth black hair trailed behind her as she ran. The other girl stopped, close enough for Teresa to hear her speaking with a dark-skinned boy who came up. If she hadn’t been sure, she was now – the strangers were speaking Gonasleng, the enemy’s language. Teresa knew English well enough, though she’d rarely had reason to speak it herself. The boy told his friend to stay there while he went to bring back the girl who had run off.
Teresa tried to get a count on how many Sky-People had come out of the ship but they were scattered now, spreading out, still jumping around, shouting and chattering excitedly. They were in territory that was not theirs and yet they were behaving like untried children! These people clearly knew nothing. They made no effort to watch for possible dangers. Their noise would scare off any prey in the area, and they would be lucky not to attract predators, or worse.
Where did these strangers come from? Why had they come here? If they expected to take Woods Clan territory, then they had made a grave mistake. The leader of their Clan certainly wouldn’t allow it. Word would most likely be sent to the Commander as soon as scouts returned to the village with a report. The Sky-People wore strange clothes, and none of them stood out as warriors. They acted like children now, but if they were a danger to her people then they would be dealt with like any other, Teresa was sure of it.
Seeing movement out of the corner of her eye, Teresa looked to her brother again and saw that Lincoln was signaling for them to leave. She knew he was right. They did not want to make their presence known to these invaders and they should retreat further while the strangers were too distracted by their excitement to notice any movement in the trees, not that they were looking. But still, she wanted to stay and watch, to see what she could learn. She was not a scout yet, but she would be soon. Perhaps this would be her chance. She hoped so – people who fell from the sky… This was unlike anything they’d seen before.
Teresa pulled herself away, climbing higher to be less visible in the shadow of the canopy and moving away from the strange ship and the invaders it carried.
Teresa came down from the trees only when the Sky-People and their crashed ship were far behind her. She had not been seen nor had she left any trace, though she knew that her brother had been monitoring her movements for the first few miles after they left the strangers to make sure of it. Now Lincoln was already on the ground walking ahead of her. He looked back at her as she caught up with him. Teresa pushed back her hood and they kept moving together towards their village, Tondc.
“What do you think this means Lincoln?” she asked her brother excitedly, speaking the Clan’s language, Trigedasleng.
“Speak English,” Lincoln said in Gonasleng, wanting her to practice the second language.
“Where did those people come from? Why are they here? Who are they?” Teresa continued in English. Though her accent was thick with the strange words on her tongue, how well she’d learned the language was shown by the fact that she didn’t trip over her words as she fired off her questions.
Lincoln was used to his little sister’s rapid questions and waited until she was finished before answering, “I don't know, but we will find out.”
He meant that scouts, like him, would be sent to find out. Teresa was a warrior, still in training yes, but she wanted to be a scout as well, like her brother. If for no other reason than that scouts were allowed to go places that were usually forbidden, to see their enemies up close, and were highly valued for the information that they could gather.
The sun was at its highest as they drew near to the village gate and they were joined by another scout, Penn. One look told them that he'd seen the ship too, and the Sky-People. They did not stop to speak as they hurried on their way to bring the news home. Coming into the village, Teresa saw that many people had abandoned their usual tasks, no doubt having seen the ship fall from the sky and were waiting for answers. They had barely set foot through the gate before they were swarmed by villagers, some worried or anxious, asking what they had seen out in the woods. Within the village they all spoke Trigedasleng, the language of the tribe.
“Don’t you all have better things to do?” A gruff voice rose above the excited and anxious questioning as Nyko, the village healers, cut a path through the crowd. He shooed people back to their own tasks before speaking to the two scouts. Nyko didn’t bother with questions; he would hear what was to be said soon enough. “Indra wants news, best not to keep her waiting.”
Teresa looked to the village’s meeting hall where their leader, Indra, was speaking with Anya, her second in command and one of Trikru’s highest war chiefs. Their conversation seemed intense but when she saw that two of their best scouts had returned, Indra cut off whatever Anya was saying. She nodded at them to follow and proceeded into the hall. Anya shot a look at them before following Indra, her young apprentice Tris in toe.
“Anya does not look happy,” Teresa commented.
“Does she ever?” said Lincoln.
Lincoln and Penn went on ahead to the meeting place to report what they had seen. Teresa moved to follow, but found her path blocked by Nyko. “No, Teresa.”
“But I saw that thing too,” she protested. “It was some kind of ship.”
“Hod yu rein daun! (Mind your place!)” Nyko said sharply. He ruffled her hair to soften his words. “Did you find what I asked of you?”
“Sha, Fisa (Yes, Healer).”
Suddenly remembering why she had gone out this morning before first light, Teresa reached into her bag and pulled out the bundles of herbs she had collected before finding the deer’s tracks. She handed them to Nyko, who seemed pleased. Teresa smiled. She liked helping Nyko and later he would show her how to cut the herbs that she’d gathered and mix them into medicines that could be used to save a life, or poisons that could take life. But that was for later.
As Teresa walked towards her hut, someone fell into a familiar step beside her.
“You left before I woke. Where’d you go?” asked Benjamin.
“I was doing a favour for Nyko,” she explained.
The other young warriors would have had training from early morning to high noon, but Teresa was occasionally pardoned from training to assist or learn from Nyko. As a Fisa, a healer, his word carried weight, and he had told her before that she had the potential to be a healer herself. If she could ever stay in one place long enough to learn anything.
“Too bad,” Benjamin continued. “Artigas was saying that he would beat you in practice for sure today.”
“Not likely!” Teresa objected.
Benjamin laughed softly at her competitive outburst and looked at Teresa with eyes identical to hers, the same dark brown that was common to their family. Lincoln had those eyes as well. Right now, despite the very strange occurrence today, Benjamin’s eyes were soft with just a hint of mischief, while Teresa’s were sharp, looking for a challenge.
They stepped into the hut that they shared. It was a smallish structure made from wood and sheets of salvaged metal with windows cut into the back wall that let the light spill in and made the place seem roomier. Several large, beautifully crafted lanterns provided sufficient light at night. Those, as well as the water jugs and some finely crafted dish settings on a shelf near the door, had all been sculpted by their eldest sister, Michonne, and left traces of her presence even though she had not lived there for some time.
On another shelf were odd little trinkets: a small doll, a wooden soldier, a well-used toy hammer. Organized neatly on a bench were a series of tools and various pieces of metal – Benjamin’s work area where he liked to tinker.
There was also a table beneath one of the windows with a bowl of clear water resting on it and three cots. Two of the cots were covered in soft fur blankets. One was conspicuously bare.
Teresa set her bag down next to the cot that was hers and pulled off her hooded coat, letting her dark braided hair fall loose. Under her coat she wore a wide necked netted shirt over a gray tank top that clung to her slender frame. The black tattoos on her arms stood out against her light brown skin. She moved over to the table by the window, pulled off her wrist- and finger-guards that every archer wore and set them on the table before washing her hands in the bowl. She scooped up water to wash her face, cleaning off the ash that she had used to hide her scent while she hunted.
“Catch anything while you were doing that ‘favour’?” Benjamin asked.
She ignored his slightly sarcastic tone. It was true, she’d started out this morning doing a favour for Nyko…she just got sidetracked along the way. And then a metal ship came falling out of the sky. She was still trying to wrap her mind around it.
But what Benjamin was hinting at was that she’d been doing this more and more lately, finding reasons to go out alone, without their friends. Without him, even though he was the better tracker. If he had been with her this morning they probably would have found the deer a lot sooner, before that ship came crashing down scaring off all the game in the area.
The brother and sister were very different, always had been, always would be. But despite their differences, Benjamin was her other half. They had been born together. They had grown together, played together, trained together and fought together. Teresa turned to face him but her eyes landed on the empty cot pushed up against the wall. After their older sisters had left, the twins always said that they would live or die together, that they would not leave each other.
Benjamin knew her though. Teresa was restless, and sometimes she just needed to be on her own. He needed no apology for that. As they left the hut Teresa wondered why Benjamin had not asked about the strange ship that everyone else was so anxious to know about.
Now she knew why he hadn’t brought it up.
She’d missed morning training, but their friends Terra and Artigas were still taking practice shots when Teresa and Benjamin joined them. While Benjamin preferred a knife, the bow was Teresa’s best weapon. A good weapon is the difference between life and death, whether in hunting or in battle, and so all young warriors were taught very early on to care for their weapons. She took special care of her bow, her prized possession, oiling it in the evenings to keep the wood supple and strong. Michonne had helped her make it before she left the tribe years ago. She had taken the time to help Teresa carve and shape the wood for the best effect so that it was both flexible and durable.
As they walked up, Teresa did not even have the chance to greet her friends before they bombarded her with questions.
“Teri, you saw that thing?” asked Terra.
“What was it? We felt it hit from here,” asked Artigas.
“It was some kind of metal ship,” Teresa told them. “There were people inside of it.”
“What!” Artigas exclaimed, “People from the sky?”
“How many?” Terra asked.
“I’m not sure, about a unit’s worth, maybe less.” A unit of warriors could be one hundred to one hundred and fifty. “But they didn’t look like warriors,” Teresa added remembering the indiscipline of the strangers. “They acted like children.”
“And what are you?” They turned to see Lincoln standing at the edge of the training area. Lincoln nodded to them and gestured for Teresa to follow him. “Just Teri,” he said when Benjamin moved to follow him as well.
Benjamin shrugged and turned back to his sister. “You are his favorite,” he teased.
“That is only because Senshi is not here,” she said, thinking how close Lincoln and their sister Senshi had been before she left to join the Rangers.
She caught up with Lincoln who was already walking away from the training area and going towards the center of the village. “What did they say?” she asked. “Did Anya and Indra decide anything? What are they doing about the sky people?”
“Indra is sending her fastest rider to inform the Commander of what we saw,” Lincoln replied. “And she wants more information on the strangers as soon as possible.”
“What if they are a danger to us?” Teri asked. “What if they came to take our land?”
Teresa remembered years back when raiders from across the desert known as the Dead Zone had come to the mountains looking for land that they could claim. They had raided several villages at the edge of the Clan’s territory, killing the innocent and stealing whatever they could before warriors were sent in force to stop them. By the end of it, the invaders had been nearly wiped out. Those that survived and were not captured had scrambled back to their desert. Those that had been taken prisoner had been made to suffer the Death by a Thousand Cuts. That had been her first real battle with outsiders.
Teresa had fought beside Lincoln in that battle, while Benjamin had fought beside their eldest sister Michonne. The twins had both earned their first marks, the small scars burned into her shoulder blade that marked kills made in combat. She felt a phantom itch from those scars now as she remembered, though the actual pain was years past. Teresa had been very young, but had not cried out as the hot metal sizzling against her skin and sharp, hot pain shot through her when the marks had been made. Instead she’d gritted her teeth and endured it in silence as they’d been trained to. It was the price they paid for taking life, even the life of an enemy. If death has no cost, then life has no worth. That is the way they lived. And a warrior’s marks were worn with pride – they showed that she had fought and killed to protect her people.
“We don’t know yet what these strangers are.” Lincoln’s voice pulled her back from her memories. “For now, we’re not to have any contact with them. We’re to keep watch and learn what we can.”
“Good luck,” Teri said wistfully.
“I said we,” Lincoln stated. Teresa looked up at him in surprise. “I spoke with Anya.” She broke into grin at his next words, “You’re coming with me.”
Teresa was grateful that her big brother would speak for her, and a little surprised by it too. The decisions that their leaders made were often decided by the information given to them by scouts. It meant he thought she could do this task, and do it well. Lincoln could see that she was excited by this, and he knew his little sister very well.
“We’re not to be seen by the strangers. Your job it to watch, report back-”
“I can do that,” she said eagerly.
“-And do as you’re told.”
“I can do that…mostly.”
Teresa lay stretched out flat against a branch overlooking the Sky-People’s camp. It was a cloudy night, which provided good cover. Moving quickly, she had gotten back to the spot where their ship had crashed just after dark, and now she watched as they gathered around a bonfire. She’d seen them struggling to light the fire – a task that would have taken minutes for her had taken over an hour for them – and they seemed so pleased with themselves when they finally got it lit. She’d heard them exclaim in wonder as the fire built up and the red orange flames rose higher. Some of them, overexcited, kept adding more wood to the fire, until someone had the good sense to stop them before it got out of control.
Had they never seen fire before? Maybe not if they had no trees for wood. But then how did they stay warm, or cook their food? What did Sky-People have for food? Did they have animals in their homes in the sky – what was the word – space stations? It didn’t look like they had brought any food with them. The smell of the wood smoke curled up to the trees, but when the wind wafted towards her, there was no scent of anything cooking on the fire.
A thousand questions had been going through her head all day about these strangers in her land. Most importantly: who are they, who sent them, and why? Why would Sky-People come down here now?
Shouts going up around their bonfire brought her attention back from her musing. Teresa was grateful for her dark clothes that blended with the trees and the shadows as she moved closer through the branches, getting as close to the stranger’s camp as she dared.
The Sky-People around the fire were cheering and chanting, “Whatever the hell we want!” She wondered what that was about, when suddenly a flash of lightning lit up the clearing, followed a few seconds later by a loud crash of thunder overhead. Someone screamed. Teresa tensed for a moment, but none of the Sky-People had seen her in the lightning flash. They were too preoccupied with the rain that started to pour from the sky. As the first drops started to fall the Sky-People started shouting.
“What is that?!”
“Rain! It’s raining!”
Some sounded afraid. Some were amazed. Teresa saw one girl franticly brushing rain drops off her skin like she was afraid they would burn her. Teresa stifled a laugh. It was like they had never seen rain before. She supposed that they hadn’t, living above the clouds. Where did they get their water from then, in a place where it never rained?
Teresa pulled her hood up. The rain that reached her through the branches of the trees rolled off the leather of her coat, and the fur lining kept her warm. She peered towards the bonfire again. Most of the Sky-People were jumping around excitedly, lifting their hands to the sky, enjoying the rain.
One of them was walking away from the crowd. A dark-skinned boy, tall, with short hair – she remembered seeing him when they first came out of the ship. He wasn’t celebrating. She followed him with her eyes until he went back into their ship, then she settled into place to continue watching.
Later, after the rain had passed and the sky cleared, Teresa moved through the trees, circling the camp. Now that the Sky-People were asleep, no longer scattered, she could get a better count of how many there were. She’d circled the whole camp without touching the ground, and she’d been right before that there was about a unit’s worth of the Sky-People, about 100.
She was considering what that might mean, that there was a unit’s worth of them, but that they were clearly not warriors. They lacked restraint and discipline. Teresa smiled, thinking how often her brother might have said the same thing about her. Most of them were around the same age as her – even if they were to be warrior, they would only be apprentices, though she doubted that they were even that.
Disha kru nou ste gona (These people are not warriors), Teresa thought.
Why would their people send them here alone? For what purpose? Would more of them be coming?
Hearing footsteps approaching, loud heavy footfalls that could never belong to any Trikru, Teresa pulled back into the shadows. Two Skaikru passed beneath her hiding place, a boy and a girl. They must have been out walking. Had she counted them already? Teresa shifted to get a better look, and the branch creaked. She froze, still hidden by shadows.
The sky-girl looked up into the tree, squinting into the dark. The boy looked back at her. “Hey, are you okay?” he asked.
The girl’s eyes flickered to him and then back into the boughs of the tree. “I thought I just saw…” she hesitated. Shaking her head, she turned away, “Never mind.”
“Come on, it’s late,” the boy said, taking her hand and leading her away.
Teresa sighed. She would need to be more careful. It would not do to be spotted by these strangers. She’d heard many horror stories of what happened to other scouts who’d been caught spying on their enemies. Though it wasn’t the Sky-People she feared more. Her leader had ordered that they have no contact with the invaders for now. Being compromised on her first mission, even if she were not captured by the enemy, would ensure that it was her last.
Praimfaya – The Great Fire; The nuclear apocalypse that ended the world
Gonasleng – English; The enemy’s language
Trigedasleng – The Clan’s language
Hod yu rein daun! – Mind your place!
Sha, Fisa – Yes, Healer
Trikru – Tree-People/Tree-Person/Woods Clan
Skaikru – Sky-People/Sky-Person
Disha kru nou ste gona – These people are not warriors