Edition 31: Of Dreaming and Destiny by Jamie Lackey
Altantsetseg is having her dream, pointing her toward her destiny. However, it won’t be quite as simple as that. Jamie Lackey’s submission to the Story Quest Contest came in second place with her charming coming of age fantasy. – SY
Altantsetseg offered Batbayar a winter-shriveled carrot, and the gelding’s velvety lips tickled her palm. He butted his forehead into her chest as he crunched his snack, and she scratched behind his ears.
Her own stomach rumbled. “My dreaming starts at sundown,” she explained. “I’m fasting.”
Batbayar whickered and flicked his ears.
“Of course I’m nervous,” Altansetseg said. “What if I see myself with a dozen wailing children instead of leading our warriors? Or what if I don’t see anything at all?” Snow crunched beneath her fur-lined boots as she shifted her weight, and the exposed tips of the tall grass hissed as a cold wind gusted. “I should go. Wish me luck.”
She slipped into her yurt just as her family finished their evening meal. The scent of roasted mutton lingered in the air.
Her father and brother left to build her snow-bed, and Altantsetseg stripped. Goosebumps raced along her bare skin.
Her mother handed her a jar of rendered fat and then pulled a bone comb through her hair. “Did you and Batbayar have a nice chat?”
A deep cough ripped through her mother’s chest, and Altantsetseg winced as the comb caught on a tangle.
“I guess.” She twisted the jar open, and the scent of rosemary filled the yurt. She rubbed the thick fat onto her feet, working it up her legs.
“What if I don’t dream?” she asked.
Her mother started braiding her hair. “Everyone dreams.”
“What was your dream like?”
“I dreamed of the thunder of hooves and the grass bowing in endless waves under a sky the color of your father’s eyes.” She coughed again, and stood. “I think you’re ready.”
Altantsetseg didn’t feel ready. She felt cold, nervous and greasy. She took a deep breath, and then followed her mother outside. The fat blunted the icy wind, but the frozen ground stung her bare feet.
The whole clan stood in silence, gathered around a mound of snow that glowed red-gold in the last rays of sunlight.
Altantsetseg’s teeth chattered as she climbed into her snow-bed. Her family pushed more snow over her body, and the cold burned.
Then, the dream chant began, and everything went black.
Altantsetseg floated in darkness. Flesh-warm salt water filled her mouth, coated her lungs as she breathed. Currents tugged at her hair. Animals appeared around her, wet hawks and rabbits, swimming snakes and floating tigers. She reached out, and they vanished when her fingers brushed them.
A glowing figure appeared, a young man with slanted, green eyes and long dark hair. He swam up to face her, awkward in his long robes. “Why don’t you have a nickname?”
“Why are you in my dream?”
“I’m your destiny, as you are mine.”
Altantsetseg studied him. His cheeks were too round, and his hands too soft. “Will I lead the clan as we conquer you?”
He laughed, but there was a bitter edge to it, and something fluttered in Altantsetseg’s chest. “I think I’ll call you Alta. You can call me Jin.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I’ve always known your name. It’s a relief to finally tell you mine.”
This strange vision was not the dream that Altantsetseg had hoped for.
“You and I will lead our people together.” Worry crept into his confident voice. “It will be glorious. I promise. You’ll see.”
Hoof beats echoed through the darkness, and Batbayar appeared, trailing hard sunlight and scattered snowflakes. The cushioning water evaporated, and the snowflakes swirled and became stars.
Jin bowed to the horse. “Greetings, great one.”
Batbayar tossed his head, happy with the attention. In the dream, his emotions flowed through Altantsetseg like a cold mountain stream.
Jin produced a sugar cube from one of his pockets, and Batbayar pranced over, happy as an untethered hawk.
“You can win him with bribes, but I still don’t trust you,” Altantsetseg said.
Jin scratched behind Batbayar’s ears. “Nothing will bring me more joy than earning your trust.” He stepped back, and his fingers glowed purple. He reached his hand toward her. “Please, take this as a token of my esteem.”
Altantsetseg hesitated, before giving him her hand. When their fingers touched, a shiver ran through her. The purple glow sank into her hand like soft rain into dry earth.
Jin twined his fingers through hers. “We will meet soon.” He pulled her closer, and she could feel the heat radiating from his body. “May I kiss you?”
Confusion and disappointment and fascination all wound together in her chest, and “No” and “Yes” collided in her throat. But she had always prided herself on her bravery. So, she kissed him. His lips were soft, and he smelled like ink and dust and lightning. Purple-edged memories flickered in her mind—his mother’s smile, the smell of steamed rice, the sound of brushes on thin paper, jumbled with rice paper walls crumbling in fire, smoke in the winter wind, screams and running feet.
She woke in her snow bed with tears frozen on her cheeks.
She sat in the yurt, wrapped in a horsehair blanket and sipping hot broth. She stared down at her wrist, at the delicate purple flowers that bloomed on her skin. Jin’s gift.
They were beautiful.
He said that they’d meet soon.
She rubbed the smooth skin over the flowers.
“You seem troubled,” her mother said, carefully not looking at Altantsetseg’s wrist.
“My dream was strange,” she said. “I would like to go for a walk, I think.”
“Of course. Be careful.”
Altantsetset dressed and gave her mother a quick hug. She noticed how thin her mother was growing, and shoved the worry away. “I will.”
The sun held the promise of longer days, and the snow under her boots was crusty and brittle. She hiked out into the grass, trying not to think of Jin’s memories. She didn’t want to worry. Not about her mother, not about him. About ash smudged on his round cheeks, blood staining his soft hands.
She sat in the grass and cried. When her tears slowed, she felt that she wasn’t alone. She looked up, and found a menagerie of animals regarding her. Hawks perched on shaggy horses, mice and rabbits and snakes and foxes all peered at her from the grass. A tiger crouched among them, close enough to crush her skull with its great paws. Batbayar stood with the other horses, and he stepped forward to lip at her hair.
“What is happening to me?” she asked.
The animals crept closer, offering comfort in warm waves. She took Batbayar’s face between her hands. “Were you really there? In my Dream?”
She felt his agreement in her bones. “Can you go and bring Jin to me?” He tossed his head and trotted toward the horizon.
“The rest of you, please go about your normal business.”
One of the mice scampered up her arm and nuzzled against her neck. “Fine, you can stay,” she whispered. She trudged back toward the camp.
Her mother blinked in surprise at the mouse on her shoulder. “I think my dream gave me the ability to communicate with animals.”
“You have always had a special connection to the horses.”
“Has this happened before?”
Her mother shrugged. “Everyone’s dreaming is different. Maybe you will be a shaman.”
Altantsetseg had never even seen a shaman. But if one would come—hope stirred in her chest. “Should I try to call one? Will I need training?”
“I don’t know. Did your dreaming give you any hints?”
She thought of Jin and rubbed her wrist. “Maybe.”
Her days fell back into their normal pattern. She helped her mother cook and pack when the clan moved. She tried not to see the worry in her father’s eyes when he looked at them—his sick wife and his suddenly-strange daughter.
She named her shoulder-mouse Enkhe and taught him tricks, though she wasn’t sure if he was learning the tricks or just doing as she requested. As days passed, she could sense all of the animals around the camp, and their numbers were increasing. They were drawn to her, like flies to honey. She kept them out of the clan’s food stores, and guided the sick or weak toward hunting parties. She made sure the tiger stayed out of sight.
Batbayar was beyond her senses.
She walked out of camp and called two hawks. She looked deep into the first’s golden eyes. “I want you to find a shaman. I need guidance.” The great bird bobbed her head and leapt into the sky.
She touched the tiny feathers on the second hawk’s head. “I am worried about Batbayar and Jin. Find them, and bring back news.”
More days passed, and neither hawk returned. Altantsetseg spent hours meditating on her dream, trying to understand what she was supposed to do.
Her mother packed up the yurt around her. “You can stay behind, if that is what you need,” she said, her voice soft and thin.
They’d already moved twice since she sent Batbayar. Would he be able to find them if they kept moving? She didn’t even know which way he’d gone—didn’t know if the clan was moving toward him or away.
“I know that your dream changed you,” her mother said. “But you mustn’t let it consume you. It is only one part of who you are.”
Before, Altantsetseg had been happy with her life. She had wanted a dream like her mother’s—one that confirmed who she was without challenging her chosen path.
Maybe this time was just her chance to say goodbye to that dream.
She stood up and helped her mother finish the packing.
The spring rains came, and the first hawk returned, leading a fat old woman on a tall horse. “Which of you sent that accursed creature?” she demanded.
Altantsetseg stepped forward. “My dreaming—”
“Gave you power over animals. That is clear.” She swung down from her saddle, and the bone beads braided into her silver-streaked hair clattered. “Let me see your hands.”
She stared at the flowers on Altantsetseg’s wrist. “Well, that is unexpected.” She scanned the rest of the lines on her palms. “And interesting. I forgive you for sending that screeching thing.” She dropped Altantsetseg’s hands and scanned the camp. “Is a feast within your means?”
“Our hunters have been very successful, of late,” Altantsetseg’s father said.
The shaman arched an eyebrow and looked at Enkhe, curled on Altantsetseg’s shoulder. “You don’t say. Very well, I will accept a feast, and give my blessing unto you. Come, girl, which is your yurt?”
Altantsetseg led her into her home. “Do you know anything of healing? Can you teach me to harness my gift?”
“Do you have any mare’s milk? I have a bit of thirst after my long ride.”
Altantsetseg poured her a bit of their dwindling supply, and the shaman drank it in one long draft. “I am no healer, and you are still waiting for your true teacher. I suppose I could teach you patience. And I could tell you what sort of tribute is appropriate for your blessings, if you choose to travel among the clans.”
“I see.” Fear for her mother and worry about Jin bubbled through her, unwelcome and unhelpful.
“I will also offer you my service.” The shaman knelt and pressed her forehead to the woven floor.
Atlantsetseg gaped at her. “Your service?”
“I am called Saran, and though I cannot prepare you for what is to come, I will be glad to stand at your side.”
Altantsetseg poured herself some milk. “Tell me what you know.”
“A cold wind is coming from the north, destroying all in its path. An army on horseback that none can stand against.”
Flashes of Jin’s memory—tall horses and huge men and the roaring of uncontrolled fire. That army—they had destroyed his village.
“You can stop them, if you wish.”
It had always been her dream to lead men in battle. “If I wish?”
“Yes, child. That choice will be yours.”
Her mother’s cough worsened, and she no longer slept through the night. Her face thinned to skin stretched over bone, but still she smiled and cooked, though her rests stretched longer and longer.
“There must be something we can do for her,” Altantsetseg said to Saran.
The shaman shook her head. “I have only seen a sickness like this once before—what healing I do know is not enough to touch it.”
“There must be someone who can help,” Altantsetseg said. “I have this power, there must be some purpose to it.”
Saran’s eyes grew far away, and she shrugged. “You will face your purpose soon enough, girl.” She pulled a pouch out of her bag. “Sprinkle this in her tea. It will not cure her, but it will ease some of the pain.”
The hunters brought back tales of refugees on the roads, of grassfires stopped by the rain. “We should ride back the way we came,” Altantsetseg’s father said. “If there is no grass, there is no point in pushing on.”
At that moment, her tiger strode into camp, and her people scattered. The tiger laid a hawk at Altantsetseg’s feet. A long, dark arrow pierced its breast, and its eyes were dull.
Altantsetseg hugged her father. “I must go on,” she said. She lifted the hawk to her chest and blinked away tears. “Lead our people back to safety.”
He kissed her forehead and nodded once. “We will wait for you at our last campsite. I will take care of your mother.”
She had never been away from her clan before. She was happy for Saran’s company as they mounted and rode south. The shaman eyed the tiger. “Is that coming with us?”
Saran twisted one of the beads out of her hair and gave it to Altantsetseg. “My mother gave me this for luck when I first left home. I think you need it more than I do. Shall we ride?”
Altantsetseg nodded, and they rode north, into the wet spring wind. Golden grass melted into gray sky in every direction. Raindrops clung to Altantsetseg’s eyelashes.
She noticed a black line on the horizon at the same moment that Batbayar entered the range of her senses, running fast. She spurred her mount forward, and Batbayar came into sight a few minutes later. Her heart leapt when she saw him and the figure on his back.
Jin’s long hair had been slashed, and his round cheeks were hollow. He looked like his knees might collapse if he dismounted. “They aren’t far behind me,” he said, his tone still filled with the same puzzling familiarity.
Altantsetseg could feel their horses approaching. She scratched Batbayar’s ears.
“Thank you for finding him,” she whispered. Batbayar rubbed his forehead against her chest, and she felt his smug assurance—he’d never doubted that he’d find her little mate. His presence bolstered her own flagging courage. Enkhe pressed warm paws against her cheek, and the tiger rubbed against her hamstrings, nearly knocking her over.
“Who is this man?” Saran asked.
Altantsetseg looked up at Jin and rubbed the flowers on her wrist. “He is my destiny.”
“You choose your own destiny, girl. Don’t rush your decision.”
The army crested the horizon, and Altensetseg asked their horses to stop.
A few of the riders were thrown, and the line came to an abrupt halt.
“They have archers, Alta,” Jin said. “Please, be careful.”
A single man dismounted and came forward on foot. He stopped at the edge of the grass and surveyed their small group. “What sorcery is this?” he demanded.
“I will not let you pass,” Altansetseg called.
He dropped his weapons and continued toward them, hands out. He wore an open vest and loose pants, and gold chains sparkled from his throat. His black eyes were as sharp as the sword he’d left on the muddy ground, and they flicked from Altantsetseg to the tiger. He ignored Saran and Jin. “You can control my horses?”
Overhead, the hawk screamed a warning, and her tiger snarled. “I can control more than just horses,” she said.
“What a magnificent gift.” He dropped to one knee. “My name is Temujin. I have been seeking a woman who would be a worthy bride. With you at my side, none could stand against us. Your people would need to have no fear. My empire would protect them. And as my empress, you will have riches beyond your wildest dreams.”
Altantsetseg had never dreamed of riches, but she did care about the safety of her clan. And Temujin’s offer sounded genuine.
“No!” Jin cried. “You mustn’t! He’s a monster.”
“Is it monstrous to take what you can?” Saran asked. “His offer is a true one. You could be an empress.”
Altantsetseg had dreamed of riding into battle, of conquering the weak and taking all she could. She looked at Jin’s hollow cheeks, at his trusting green eyes.
“I know you.” He reached down and touched the flowers on her wrist. His memories flickered through her mind again, and she imagined herself among the invaders, a torch in one hand, a sword in the other.
She didn’t want to live in a world where people took things just because they could.
And she had the power to choose her world—she did not need Temujin to protect her people.
“You are a warrior, I can see it in your eyes,” Temujin said. “We are the same. You would never be satisfied with a small life or with a small man.” He held out his hand. “Join me.”
Altantsetseg looked from him to Jin. Should she follow her lifelong desire or her dreaming? “You both think you understand me,” she said. “I will give you a chance to prove it. Bring me a gift at dawn tomorrow, and I will make my choice.”
Both men smiled, confident in their chances. Temujin’s smile was like a tiger’s.
Jin’s smile was small and familiar and stirred feelings that she didn’t understand.
As the sun fell, Jin walked away from the army, back into the grasslands. He returned a few hours later with mud under his fingernails. “I need your fire to prepare my gift,” he said.
Altantsetseg nodded her agreement, and then set a guard of animals to wake her if the army made any threatening moves.
Saran woke her at dawn. “It is time.”
Temujin strode across the blackened earth, his tiger smile wide on his face. Atlantsetseg, Saran, and Jin met him, accompanied by a handful of Altantsetseg’s animals.
Temujin held out a long, thin bundle wrapped in blankets. Inside, she found a glistening spear, perfect for use on horseback. The weight and length were perfect for her, and the spear felt like a natural extension of her arm.
“It is the most finely crafted weapon that my artisans could create,” he said. “Simple, elegant, and deadly. A fitting gift to show my estimation of you.”
“A fine gift,” Saran said.
Altantsetseg looked at Jin. How could he offer anything nearly as fine? Yet, his smile was undimmed. He held out a cup, stolen from Altantsetseg’s pack. Liquid sloshed inside, dull green and thick and smelling of crushed grass. “I have brewed a cure for your mother,” he said. “It will take some time for her body to heal, but with this, she will live.”
Tears blurred Altantsetseg’s vision. Of course. Of course he would know the perfect gift. “Thank you, Jin. I accept your gift.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Temujin said. “I have doctors who could see to anyone you care for—we can keep the boy and force him to do our bidding. You cannot seriously be choosing this worm over all that I have to offer you.”
“Temujin, your honor me, but I have made my choice. Turn back, or all of the animals in this land will hunt you, from the smallest mouse to the mightiest tiger.”
Temujin flicked his wrist, and a dagger appeared in his hand. “If you will not be mine, I must destroy you.”
Enkhe launched himself from Altantsetseg’s shoulder and sank his teeth into Temujin’s wrist, and the circling hawk swooped, raking its talons across Temujin’s eyes. Batbayar lunged forward, and bones cracked under his hooves. The tiger hunched, ready to pounce.
“Do you want to continue this, or will you go?” Altantsetseg asked.
“I’ll go.” Temujin spat blood. “You won’t live forever, girl.”
“Neither will you.”
Temujin laughed. “My legacy will last for centuries.”
Saran shook her head, her expression a mix of relief and regret. “No, it won’t.”
He walked back to his army, and they rode away. Altantsetseg knelt and lifted Enkhe back to her shoulder. “Good mouse.” And as the army went, the animals of the land memorized their scent, to know them if they came again. The tiger loped after them, watching for any stragglers.
Altantsetseg turned to Jin. “How did you know? That was the one thing that I really wanted.”
Jin rubbed his bare neck. “You know the answer to that already—I know you.”
“You look terrible.”
“I suffer from nothing that some food and time won’t heal.” He took a deep breath. “I can’t offer you an empire, but—”
“If I want an empire, I’ll take it myself.”
“I don’t think you will,” he said.
“Are you going to teach me to know myself as you do?” Altantsetseg asked.
“Are you also going to teach me to know you?”
“I look forward to it.” Altantsetseg gave Batbayar a carrot then swung up onto his back. Jin wrapped his arms around her. He was warm against her back, and she leaned against him. “Let’s go home.”
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 120 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death…. She is the editor of Triangulation: Lost Voices and Triangulation: Beneath the Surface. Her short story collection, One Revolution, and her novella, Moving Forward: A Novella of Life After Zombies are available on Amazon.com. Her debut novel, Left Hand Gods, is available from Hadley Rille Books. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.
Book: https://www.amazon.com/Left-Hand-Gods-Jamie-Lackey/dp/0997118822/ .