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Second Daughter by Eugie Foster

Navah was born second daughter to her house, a disappointment to her mother and father, who had expected another son. Her mother died of shame when she realized she had birthed a second girl child and her father named her Navah, which means &#147regrettable.&#148

The only one who was kind to Navah was her brother Alsieb. Navah would sit with Alsieb while he wove his warrior&#039s shirt and as his hands twisted and pulled at the thick strands of yarn, he would also spin fabulous tales for her about cunning monkey kings, sly fox women, and her favorite, the fearsome witch who lived in the forest. She barely dared to breathe for fear of disrupting the luck charms his fingers twined into the cloth, but she never missed a single word.

Now Alsieb was sick, the poison from a bandit&#039s lance working its way into his heart. The brigand had stricken off one of Alsieb&#039s charms at a crucial moment and the green tip had stabbed into his side.

The aunties said the wound was cursed and would not heal. Navah overheard them as she stood peeling the vegetables for dinner.

&#147It was bad magic&#033&#148 Aunt Yegane said as she poured rice into a cooking pot.

&#147A demon perhaps,&#148 Aunt Hadara agreed, rolling out flour for dumplings.

&#147Maybe it wasn&#039t a demon,&#148 Savina said. &#147Maybe it was Navah. She sat with him while he wove. I saw.&#148 Savina was first daughter and delighted in tormenting Navah, who, after all, was lowlier than her, being second daughter.

The aunties glared at Navah.

&#147Cursed second daughter,&#148 Aunt Hadara hissed. &#147Alsieb will surely die because of your thoughtlessness&#033&#148

Navah shrank within herself, feeling the harsh glares that fell on her back as though they were rods. She dropped the half-peeled radish and ran out of the kitchen, ignoring the indignant cries of the aunties. They would surely pinch her and beat her later, but she didn&#039t care.

Amber eyes twinkled at her, tilted at the corners, cat-slitted. &#147Call me Lady Isahr.&#148

Navah snatched up her ragged mantle, climbed through a low window, and stepped out onto the lane. It was a cold night. Lady Moon wore a thick shawl of dark gray clouds rimmed with faint stars. Navah could barely see her feet on the white-stoned path.

&#147Mistress Moon,&#148 Navah said, &#147I am just a second daughter, but I am on an errand to save my brother. Won&#039t you smile upon me so that I may find my way to the witch woman&#063&#148

Lady Moon winked at Navah and let her shawl slip. She didn&#039t take it off, for she was shy tonight, but it was enough. A fragile beam of silver glimmered down and touched the path with a pale brilliance.

Navah hurried along, but the trees grew thick in the forest, and their branches tangled over her head so that they blocked out Lady Moon&#039s face. Navah stopped and looked to the left and right. She wasn&#039t sure of the way.

The black eyes of a night hare glittered at her in the shadows.

&#147Master Rabbit,&#148 Navah said. &#147I am just a second daughter, but I am on an errand to save my brother. Do you know the way to the witch woman&#033&#148 The hare flicked his long, black ears and twitched his shiny whiskers. His hind legs kicked out and he soared through the hedges.

Navah ran after him, her heart pattering in her chest. Again and again she thought she&#039d lost him, but then she would catch a glimpse of his sparkling eyes or the shimmer of his flashing paws. And suddenly, before her was a lopsided hut. But surely this couldn&#039t be the witch&#039s house already&#063 In Alsieb&#039s stories there were always three companion guides&#151one for truth, one for fortune, and one for honor. There should have been a talking bird of paradise or a rhyming boulder to deliver her to the witch woman, certainly&#063

The night hare bobbed his head to peer at her.

&#147Thank you, Master Rabbit,&#148 Navah panted.

The hare flipped his tail at her and vanished into the forest.
Navah had never seen anything like the hut before. It had five sloping sides, which was very unlucky. Everyone knew that five was an evil number. And the path led straight to the door, without a single bend or curve. Surely it was an invitation to bad spirits to have an unbroken line leading to one&#039s door&#063 Finally, not a single lantern hung over the entry. Did the witch not know that a shadowed doorway meant ill fortune&#063 Truly, it was the most poor-omened house Navah had ever seen.

She stepped up to the door&#151painted dark green, green for sorrow no less&#033&#151and lifted the heavy bronze knocker. She struck it three times, the number for prosperity.

A lilting, musical voice called from within&#058 &#147Strike the knocker once more, if you please.&#148

Four knocks&#063 That was unheard of&#033 But Navah did as she was bid, and with a trembling hand, raised the knocker one final time.

The door swung open on noiseless hinges. What of the lucky squeak to frighten away goblins&#063 All these contrary omens&#033 But Navah did not dwell long on the silent hinge, for the witch woman, her hostess, caught up her attention.

She was not at all what Navah had expected. She was young for one, a lady, not a crone, and quite beautiful for another. A waterfall of ink-black hair cascaded, almost to the floor, around a smooth, round face. She wore a simple wool dress with a flaxen girdle that emphasized her supple waist and graceful arms. But the wool had been dyed a deep gray, almost black, a very unlucky color&#059 it was the exact hue of a death shroud.

The woman beckoned her inside. Within, the room was hung with herbs around a blue-stoned fireplace and a single round window let in the night sky. Navah struggled not to dwell on all the perils a window with no corners might attract.
&#147Are&#151are you the witch woman&#063&#148 she asked.

Amber eyes twinkled at her, tilted at the corners, cat-slitted. &#147Call me Lady Isahr.&#148

Navah gasped&#059 isahr meant &#147ill-met.&#148 She bowed. &#147I am Navah.&#148 Lady Isahr laughed. It was a bright, merry sound, full of sunshine and sweetness. She took Navah&#039s arm and tried to coax her out of her obeisance. &#147What brings you to my door on so cold a night, unregrettably&#063&#148

Navah bowed lower. &#147Please, Lady Isahr, my brother Alsieb is sick, maybe dying. It is my fault, my bad luck that caused it. The stories say you are wise and can lift curses. Will you help him&#063&#148

Lady Isahr knelt and wiped Navah&#039s cheeks with a corner of her death-colored gown. Until that moment, Navah had not realized she was crying.
&#147Tell me what has happened.&#148

Navah sobbed out the tale in a rush of misery and guilt. Lady Isahr listened, her smooth face somber, until Navah was done. Then she lifted Navah to her feet and ushered her to a five-legged chair by the fire.

&#147Child, I may be wise, but it is your courage that is needed tonight.&#148 Lady Isahr pulled several herbs down. &#147I will make a draught for you that will let you walk with the spirits. I fear your brother is caught in a ghost web.&#148

&#147I will free him.&#148

&#147You are brave, but there is peril.&#148 Lady Isahr plucked up a knife that glistened like a slender star. &#147I must open your vein to anchor your soul to your body, but if you do not prevail before you are bled white, both you and Alsieb will be lost.&#148

Navah trembled, but she said again&#058 &#147I will free him.&#148

She watched as the witch woman mixed a bitter potion in a tawny, heavy bowl. When it was done, Navah lifted the bowl to her lips and swallowed every drop. Lady Isahr pressed the silver knife to Navah&#039s throat. &#147Remember, you&#148 she said, and the bright metal flashed.

Pain blossomed like an orchid of fire at Navah&#039s throat. She recoiled from the agony and was astonished to see her body still slumped in the five-legged chair. Lady Isahr bent over her, catching the stream of blood in a honey-teak cup.

&#147Fly, Navah,&#148 she heard the witch woman call. &#147Quickly.&#148

The pain flared in her neck, and with a thought, Navah was outside and back on the path. A night hare blinked at her but she did not need his aid. She ran, her feet skimming the ground, her neck a torrent of fire. Fast as worry, she retraced her steps and slipped into her father&#039s house.

Within, she found Alsieb in a strangling web of spirit knots. Strands thick as despair looped his waist, while razor fine threads of disharmony twined his hands and feet. Alsieb lay as one already dead, his face slack and pale. The trap was so tight that not a flicker of light shone through the coils.

&#147Alsieb&#033&#148 she cried.

His eyes opened. &#147Navah,&#148 he whispered. &#147Beware. It is a bad luck web. Come no closer.&#148

Before he finished speaking, tendrils reached out for her. One jagged strand wrapped around her ankle and tugged her forward. It was icy against her skin and the chill of it vied with the fire still ablaze at her throat. She felt dizzy, a wash of sickness in her stomach. But she also saw that as the web clutched at her, the knots around Alsieb loosened.

She waded in, welcoming the lashing cables of discord with open arms. Their touch drained her strength, crushed the breath from her chest. But still she moved forward, until she stood beside Alsieb. She wrenched her hands free from biting knots of misfortune and shoved him with all her remaining strength. The tangle around him had become so slack, distracted by new prey, that she was able to push him free.

As soon as he was loose, he sat up, the color returning to his cheeks. He reached for her, but she staggered back with her burden. She was second daughter and of no consequence&#059 she would not let Alsieb become tangled again.
How she made it outside and onto the path, she did not know, but there she was. She fell heavily, her feet snarled and her limbs too numb to respond.

A black hare appeared by her head. &#147Silly girl,&#148 he said. &#147How can you be strangled in ill-fortune if you are a second daughter&#063&#148 The rabbit reached out with a sharp paw and swiped at Navah&#039s neck. The burning pain from the cut flared anew, like a fire behind her eyes, eating her up, and thawing through the cold. She cried out and found herself back in Lady Isahr&#039s five-legged chair. A black rabbit preened its silken ears by the fire.

&#147Quietly, child, you must rest,&#148 Lady Isahr said. She set a cooling poultice against Navah&#039s neck.

Navah looked up into a face as beautiful as the full moon and into eyes as kindly as the sun. Surely this woman was brimming with good luck.

But&#058 &#147Lady Isahr&#063 Are you a second daughter&#063&#148 Navah cringed at her own temerity.

Lady Isahr only smiled. &#147Of course I am, child. Didn&#039t you know&#063 Second daughters are very special. We make our own luck.&#148

Navah thought on Lady Isahr&#039s words as she drank fragrant tea and nibbled sweet bean cakes until the last of the chill faded to a muted tingle. The black rabbit escorted her to the boundaries of her father&#039s house.

The household was rattling lucky chimes and setting food out for good spirits in thanks for Alsieb&#039s recovery. She stepped over the incense sticks and walked straight to Alsieb&#039s room without adding a single curve or twist to her course.

Alsieb greeted her warmly and embraced her in his arms.

She felt his strength and heard the vigor of his voice and rejoiced. But she was also sad. &#147I am going off to make my own luck,&#148 she told him.

Alsieb pressed his cheek to hers. &#147Don&#039t go, little sister. You have always been my lucky charm.&#148

Navah kissed Alsieb&#039s warm forehead. &#147And you have always been my sanctuary. But I must make my own house now. Perhaps one with five walls.&#148

Alsieb bowed his head sadly, but let her go, promising to visit her often. And even though the hinges on Navah&#039s door didn&#039t squeak and the walls were a most unsettling green in color, it was a lucky house. And no one who knew Navah thought the acquaintance to be at all regrettable.

About the Author

Eugie Foster calls home a mildly-haunted, fey-infested house in Metro Atlanta that she shares with her husband, Matthew, and her pet skunk, Hobkin. She is an active member of the SFWA, winner of the Phobos Award, and Managing Editor of Tangent. She also pens a monthly column, Writing for Young Readers, for Writing-World.com. Her fiction has been translated into Greek, Hungarian, Polish, and French, and has been nominated for the British Fantasy, Southeastern Science Fiction, and Pushcart Awards. Her publication credits include stories in Realms of Fantasy, The Third Alternative, Paradox, Cricket, Fantasy Magazine, Cicada, and anthologies Best New Fantasy&#058 2005, edited by Sean Wallace &$040Wildside Press&#041&#059 Heroes in Training, edited by Jim C. Hines and Martin H. Greenberg &#040DAW Books, forthcoming&#041&#059 and Writers for Relief, edited by Davey Beauchamp&#151a charity anthology to benefit the survivors of Hurricane Katrina with contributions from Brian W. Aldiss, Gardner Dozois, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, and Larry Niven. Visit her online at www.eugiefoster.com.

Misty Ericson
Misty Ericson holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from San Jose State University, California, and an MA History of Art from University of Leeds, UK. In addition to her work on HerCircleEzine.com, which she founded in 2005, Misty enjoys painting in her studio and restoring her home in the English countryside.
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