Tiger and Tarren were tied together by an invisible thread. Their father sat them in the dirt and told them:
"I have linked your fates."
They were starving then, and she remembered those times with the most clarity. Her and her brother had been fighting over a dead sand spider that she had found pressed into the clay. Her father had separated them with his massive hands.
"A person can do one great thing during their lifetime, one magic thing." He had said from sallow cheeks. "That tethering was mine. And now, whatever happens, you must always be together. Together you will be strong, and survive. But you must care for each other above all else, or the magic of that thread will falter. The thread must not be broken. Your lives depend on it." Then, her father had eaten the sand spider himself. The words stuck with them. They would never fight over food again.
As she grew, Tiger had doubts about her father's magic. She would go hunting with Sai or her father and feel nothing. If anything, it was good to be away from Tarren sometimes. Tarren and his stories - prophesies about the return of Saxon Arroway or the birth of The Starchild. But then sometimes she would feel it. An invisible force, pulling. She would be checking water collectors or digging for dustcrabs, not far off, the Tar Garden still visible, when suddenly she would feel it - something pulling, maybe pushing her to her brother. Sometimes she would go. Leave her work and find him. He would smile as if to say, you felt it too? Other times she ignored the feeling. If she was lucky, it would simply fade away... but occasionally, it became overwhelming and her head would begin to hurt.
She was rarely far from Tarren. Life in Tar Garden became more stable over time. They grew through the years as one starved wanderer after another joined their settlement. Eventually, the settlement grew into a village. Her father became Ghan simply by reputation. Nobody worked harder than he did to make shelter, gather food and stave off attacks from raiders. But raids became less frequent as the drought and heat of the Tarlands increased. They would have died or been forced south if not for the well. It had taken months to bring the stone from the ruins of the great northern city. Tiger and Tarren hadn't been permitted to go, but Aichlan told stories of a twisted, frightening place, haunted by ghosts, hybrids and thousands of cats; cats whose bites or scratches could cause death in sunsteps. Of course, he had admitted to only having seen the cats.
When the well was complete, everyone in the village was afraid to drink the water. It was cold and looked clean, but a rumour spread that Tarland water was still poisoned by some black magic from the times of impurity. Some had even refused to help build the well. In the end, it was her father and the old man, Sai, who had sealed the last of the stone and built the frame for the line. That day, her father had lowered, and then hoisted the wooden cups Tarren and Tiger had painstakingly carved from Bittergum tree root.
"It has been hundreds of years since this land was poisoned and burned." Every face in the village was tired and lined from thirst, but all eyes followed her father. He lifted one of the cups to his face.
"This water runs deep under the earth, it has been protected from the decay of the wastelands to the north. We still need to maintain the collectors, but this is what we will drink now." And he had tipped the cups to his lips and drank noisily in front of them all. The water had splashed down his cheeks, in runnels through the layered dust that clung to his skin. For a moment she had seen Tarren's youth there, in her father's bright fearless eyes. When he had finished, her father breathed a sigh of relief and exaggerated refreshment.
"Don't be afraid. It is cleaner than anything grey that falls from the skies here. Cleaner than any of the meat or roots we can scrounge from the Tarlands. Drink it and be renewed." The people had crowded around.
Time passed in the tar desert. Tiger grew. The village grew. She wondered about the world to the south; drank in the travelling traders' whispers of giants, monuments and people in underground hiding. She thought less of the invisible thread. Sometimes when her father was away on a hunt, she would wander from the village, always farther each time. But the landscape didn't change much. Flat. Empty. Hot. She knew that some day, if she wasn't allowed to see something of the world, no matter how dangerous it was, that she would have to leave. She convinced herself that thread or no thread, eventually that would happen.
Then, two days before Tarren's becoming ceremony she had felt something beckoning her away to the south, like the call of an invisible but conscious force. As she was sneaking off, determined to explore further than she had yet done, her nose started to bleed and she fell to her knees. All she could think of was her brother. Something seemed to force her back to the village. She staggered into the hut she shared with Tarren and her father.
"Sister. I was just thinking of you."
Tarren was there with the entire village library spread before him: seven discernible books but also scraps and fragments, some of them so swollen and faded they were difficult or impossible to read. That didn't matter much, as Tarren and her father were the only two in Tar Garden that could read a word.
"Tiger you're bleeding."
She leaned against the smooth grain of the polished wall. Tarren just looked at her for a moment, and then he crossed the small space in three slow steps.
"I have something for you." He said, holding out his large dark hand.
She reached out, but he pulled back. The late day's sun had shone from the doorway in a wet smear across her knuckles.
"Hold on. The blood. Here."
Slowly and carefully he used part of his tunic to wipe first her hand and then her upper lip.
"It's stopped." He decided, then carefully handed her a small rectangle of yellowed paper.
"What is it?"
"Your words. Your poem. It is called a poem."
"But Tarren, father... "
He smiled then, small wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. When he smiled he looked so much like father and so forgetting was difficult.
"But I can't read."
"It doesn't matter. You know the words."
This was true. He had read it to her so many times. In what distant deeps or skies...
"I brushed the page with Sap of Arden but you should still keep it dry."
"Why are you giving it to me now?"
"Because words have power. They will keep you safe."
Tarren crossed back to the table, and began his small ritual of returning the documents and books to their home. He carefully wrapped the treasures in bigleaf. Three layers. Then he reached up to hide them in their place between the roof supports, sat cross-legged on the floor and gazed out the door. They both watched the moving forms of the people as the village began to prepare for night.
He can't know that I sometimes think of leaving. Can he?
"Why would I need anything to keep me safe? Is there news? Have raiders been seen?"
"No, nothing new. But change is coming."
"You've been listening to old Miriam again."
"She said Arroway would return. It's been foretold."
"Father doesn't believe much of what she says."
"I know Tiger. But it isn't just old Miriam. It's the air and the deep sky beyond. They tell their own story."
"And what story is that?"
"That Arroway will return. When the Starchild is born, Arroway will return and unify humankind."
"The stars told you all this?"
"And then the Starchild will conquer death. Think! What if the Starchild were born here? In Tar Garden? Who knows, it could be yours! Or mine."
"I'll never have a child, Tarren. But your becoming is at hand - and at least four of the women here would love to try to make you a Starchild."
He blushed at her chiding, still only a boy.
"I believe that there is renewal coming. We can't live in this clay wasteland forever, Tiger. We deserve to be delivered of it. I've seen the shapes of coming change in the sky."
"You are seeing things again. You stare up at the stars too much. You think about them too much as well. The best we can do is to hope that soon they will be gone."
"That's what she said. Miriam. That the time of The Watchers was at an end."
"Well, then that is one thing I hope she is right about. But can things ever go back to what they were before, like in the stories of old times? When they built a glass tower that touched the sky and the world was filled with food of all colors and magical things." She laughed.
"But then the stars threw down their spears." He said quietly.
"You are too serious. Let's go help prepare for the meal."
She pulled him up and embraced him.
"Thank you for this, Tarren."
She folded the poem carefully into her belt. He smiled, but his eyes were far away.
"Come on." She pulled him out into the late day's heat.
A few days later, Tiger woke early, before Tarren and her father. The night before had been Tarren's becoming celebration. The men and women had given him some of the dream fungus, found only at the edge of the Inner Band. The celebrations had gone late into the night. She had gone to sleep earlier than the rest, uncomfortable watching the way the women looked at her brother now that he was permitted. Today, the entire village would sleep like the dead. She lay just before first light, eyes wide open, and heard that silent horn, calling.
She set out to the south to explore. Her father would assume she was west, checking rain collectors. The rains came infrequently but sporadically and a storm cloud had been spotted the night before. She walked, then ran. Even in the early morning, the sun could be harsh. Today her piebald skin tingled and soon the camp was only a brown bump on the horizon. Around her she saw nothing save the occasional distant rock, treacherous depression or uneven mound. These she avoided. Predators had been known to lie in wait in these places, animal and human.
When she stopped to catch her breath, she scanned the horizon and thought she saw a wild cat moving in the north. But she blinked and there was nothing. Just a sun-wimple, perhaps. To the east, the terrain seemed to change. There were what could be hills. She knew based on the stories of some refugees that had found their camp, that if she went far enough that way, perhaps days, she would see mountains.
She pulled out her poem. Climbed to the top of a large stone. Took a deep breath. She performed the words, just as they were on the paper. But she didn't chant them quietly as she normally did. The paper seemed to give them more power. She shouted them to the empty landscape to the south. She put extra force into the end of each line when there was a similar sound, as Tarren had taught her. When she was finished, nothing happened. The desert of clay still slept. Her face was hot. In her haste she had neglected to bring water, a good sign that today was not the day she was meant to leave. She wasn't even sure that she was meant to leave. The feeling of being called had not faded. It was simply gone. She would have to go back. The sun had already traced five steps across the sky. She could make it back in four sunsteps and in time for the evening meal if she ran hard. Her father was likely to have discovered her absence by then. He would be angry with her. As she stood by the stone, she thought she felt it again, the pull south. Then, a sudden pressure came into her head and she cried out, fell to her knees. This was different. Something new.
She breathed between stabs of pain. There was trouble. She managed to get up and began to run. She ran without stopping.
She saw the smoke a long time before she could make out the shape of the village. A few spans after she could smell burning flesh. She sobbed as she ran - screamed - but her voice was only the shadow of a dry whisper. Her vision swam as the feet of her leggats smacked the rubble-streaked clay. Raiders. They could all be dead. It was her fault. She had left them. Closer now, but still maddeningly far off. She didn't see anyone moving.
Then the wind changed. She saw forms slumped in the clay outside the village. She tried to call out but the wind swallowed all sound. One of the larger forms broke into two. One half rose from the ground, seemed to regard her, then began running towards her. She didn't even realize that she had taken her bone-knife out. But as she neared the other running form, she saw that it was Sai, the old man.
"Look away child... Look away... "