Today's Reading

Yeah, she did. She wasn't actually a lion cub at all—she was one of the Kharobem, shape-shifting creatures of the desert whom the Kakri claimed were "made of story," whatever that meant. This one, though, wasn't like the one he had released from captivity a while back. This one Jason had saved from a pack of wylna, and she had hidden him and Baileya in a sandstorm. Later a whole bunch of Kharobem had appeared when he and Madeline had confronted the archon in one of the towers of Far Seeing.

"Maybe she wants to hear the story," Jason suggested.

"I think not, Little Red. The Kharobem often come to watch some momentous occasion, some turning point in the history of the Sunlit Lands. They came when we left the city of Ezerbin, and they watched when the Sunlit Lands were being fashioned." She appeared to hear a sound outside the ring of firelight. Her eyes tracked something in the distant darkness.

"Why don't we ask her?"

"The Kharobem do not answer such questions."

"Ha, shows what you know." Jason addressed the lion cub. "Hey, what's going on?"

The lion cub settled onto her haunches. "Many years ago," she said, speaking with the voice of a young child, "there was a shepherd who desired the people of his village to join him in searching for and killing the wolves in the hills. But none would go. 'The wolves have not bothered our sheep in four seasons,' they said. 'Let us leave them alone.' The man grew angry, and when the villagers left the meadow, he killed ten of his own sheep. He made it look as if a great wolf had done it, and he said, "Every five seasons the wolves come and eat all the sheep." This was not true, and none could remember it, but as he told the villagers of the monstrous size of the wolf that had done this horrible thing—it had not even eaten the sheep, just destroyed them—the villagers were filled with fear. 'Do not be afraid,' he said, 'but rather get your swords, your bows, your knives, and your hunting dogs.' They set out and killed all the wolves they could find, and when it was done, the shepherd had lost only ten sheep."

Jason rolled his eyes. "Ugh. More riddles."

Mother Crow stared at the Kharobem, her eyes wide. "Wu Song—" she began, but then the arrow sank into her chest and she listed to the side, sliding into the sand. Jason didn't even know it was an arrow at first. He thought some black bird—a raven—had flown at her, and he was about to say something about how strange it was when she raised her arm, eyes wide, and he saw the shaft of the arrow. Jason ran over and fell on his knees beside her.

"Come close," she gasped. "For one last story."

And when he leaned near her, trying to hold back his tears, she told him the story that would change the world. She lifted her hand and brushed his hair back tenderly, like a mother with her child. He put his hand over hers. She closed her eyes and breathed, ragged and tender.

"You're going to be okay," Jason said. He had promised never to tell a lie again, but he said this more out of hope than anything else. He didn't know anything about arrow wounds. He would need to try to get her to the other Kakri as quickly as possible. Was it safe to move her? He wasn't sure. But safer, surely, than staying here.
Jason recognized the fletching on the arrow. It was from the Scim. He almost stumbled into the fire when he rose. He clenched his fists and stood at the edge of the firelight. "Who did this? Show yourself! Cowards!" But there was no answer. His head, his chest felt tight, felt like he had been wedged into a crack of stone. He could barely pull a breath, and his jaws had clamped shut. He couldn't speak, couldn't shout. Sobs forced themselves through his teeth. He fell beside Mother Crow, cradling her head in his arms.

The lion cub gave him a pitying look with her large, dark eyes, then slipped away into the darkness. Mother Crow had fallen onto the carpet they set out between the tents. Whoever had shot that arrow was still out there—he knew that much—but he also knew he needed to get her out of the open. He dragged the carpet toward one of the tents, then pulled her the rest of the way by her arms.

She was still breathing but felt terribly cold. He put a blanket over her, carefully draping it so it wouldn't disturb the arrow. There was very little blood, which concerned him more than buckets of it would have. He pulled the flaps of the tent shut, so that no one could get a clear shot at her, and propped her up a bit, hoping it would help her breathing.

Jason crouched at the tent door and slipped a long, curved knife into his hand. He had been practicing with various weapons in the Kakri way, and though he still wasn't an expert, he was far, far better than he had been a year ago. This knife was Mother Crow's. She called it her "tent knife." She had a tent knife, a cooking knife, a hunting knife, a blanket knife, a cape knife, and a ceremonial knife. No doubt she had more, but Jason had finally told her he didn't want to know about any others.
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