Novel Excerpt

The Hummingbird Familiar

CHAPTER ONE

The Apprenticeship

Maya watched the forest, hoping the forest wasn’t watching back. She clung to the side of the lumbering wagon as if its wood was a barrier against the night. The repetitive clop of the donkey’s hooves soothed her, until a distant owl hooted and her skin prickled with goosebumps. Sinking into her seat, Maya hid in the shadow of the driver. This was the time of night when goats went missing from their pens, when the monsters of bedtime stories skittered in the brush, when windows were shuttered and children slept under candlelight.

Maya nudged the driver. “Isn’t this dangerous?”

We have an escort,” the man said, gruffly.

An escort?” Maya squinted. Alongside the road ahead were pines and maples, blots against starlight. As the donkey waded through a creek that had washed over the road, its hoofsteps sent ripples through reflected sky. Maya waited until the creek passed out of sight, but no one crossed behind them.

We’re alone.”

The driver chuckled. “Are we?”

Why couldn’t we go in the day?”

Tradition.”

Maya rested her chin on her knees. In her coat pocket, she passed her thumb over a chain of clovers. Emily had made it, and Maya had promised her friend that she would keep it forever, but already her pocket was filled with ragged clover fragments and her fingers were purple-stained. Touching the chain reminded Maya of the times when the two of them had shirked their chores to make concoctions from mashed flower petals, to leave thistles in her brother’s shoes, or to dare each other into Hart’s grove. This would all have been different if Emily could have come along, but it was better this way. Shamans, after all, were supposed to live alone.

Why?” Maya tugged the driver’s cloak. “Why is it tradition?”

The man grunted in response. “I’m no shaman. You’ll have to ask him yourself.”

Aren’t you worried about spirits?”

I haven’t seen one yet,” said the man, “but I’ve heard they prefer girls.”

Girls?” Maya eyed the shadowy forest.

The donkey brayed as the wagon creaked to a halt. At the top of a hill stood a house, its windows warm with firelight. The driver extended a calloused hand and helped Maya to the ground.

Good luck.”

You’re not coming?” Maya tried to sound brave, but her voice came out in a squeak.

To that place? Not while I’m healthy.”

Oh,” she said. “Then, good bye. Thank you for the ride.” She wasn’t grateful, but she had to be polite. You never knew who might be watching.

Maya walked a wide circle around the donkey and stepped off the path. Her mother’s good shoes squelched in the mud until they were sucked off. Cringing, Maya tiptoed in muddy socks up the hill, brushing past waist-high grass that tickled her knees. She had a sense that she was crossing over into a place where ordinary things such as shoes no longer mattered, even if the pebbles that dug into the arch of her feet didn’t quite agree. Here and there, golden eyes glinted in the brush, blinking away with a rustle to reappear a little nearer. Maya held a breath. The moon was a sliver in the sky. Was its light enough to keep her safe?

In a keening blast, the wind whipped through the grass, rifled through her hair, and banged the shutters of the house. Maya ran, her feet thudding on the hard-packed earth, until she reached the shaman’s porch.

I hope you’re watching, Mr. Hart,” Maya whispered between puffs of breath, though she wasn’t sure if the deer spirit would follow her outside of the village. Was he mad about all the times she had snuck into his grove?

On the door was a pattern of circles that had been traced in faintly luminescent chalk. Maya touched a line, smudging it onto her finger, and the whole pattern disappeared. From the woods came a mournful howling, crackling twigs, and whooping wind. Shivering, Maya rubbed the goosebumps on her arm, and then raised a timid hand to knock.

The door flung open, catching her in the ribs. A man glared at her over a pair of spectacles, and Maya felt like she had just been caught in the pantry before dinnertime

Yes?” croaked the man. He spared little more than a glance for Maya before he turned to his door to retrace its markings. Maya would have recognized him even had his robe not been dyed the red and black of a shaman. He stood a head taller than most people in the village, though it was hard to notice because he was always stooping. His eyes were dishwater-grey like the monsters in her uncle’s stories.

I-I’m…” Maya sneezed. Pungent smoke wafted from inside the house, stinging her eyes. Maya hesitated and then bowed low. As she stood, she pushed back her curled bangs, which her mother had painstakingly rolled the evening before. Straightening her posture, Maya puffed out her chest and balled her hands into fists. Here she was, a witch in her best dress, and she wasn’t going to cower. “I’m Maya.”

Oh?” The shaman scratched his scraggly black hair. “Something wrong, girl?”

Don’t you know?”

Maya, Maya. Short girl, green eyes, hair like straw,” he muttered as if reading off a list. “You’re the one? So young. What do you know of magic?”

Well, I, uh…” Maya wriggled, staring at her toes. “I dream.”

Ah,” the man said. “Special dreams?”

Before it rains, I dream in… blue,” Maya said. “Just blue. Everything is blue, dark like the sky before the sun rises.” Maya bristled, realizing she had just admitted to peeking out the window before dawn. “Everyone gets so excited. I don’t see why. Rain just mean chores in the garden, don’t you think?”

The shaman chuckled. “But that isn’t everything, is it?”

No. There was another dream.” Maya fidgeted with the clover chain in her pocket. Her mother had loved the rainy dreams; she used to shake Maya awake every morning to check if she had had one. But this dream had been different. “In the dream, a silver wind blew through everything. It was like smoke, going in and out, and people breathed it.”

Silver?” he said. “Not black.”

No.” Maya paused, but the shaman made no further comment. “It was awful, so I told my uncle. Then people started getting sick. They wanted me to come here because–”

Yes, I imagine your neighbours would have treated you like a witch.”

Even Emily, thought Maya. Even Emily had yanked her hand back as she passed Maya the clover chain, as if she feared that she could catch something by touching her. If only she had never told anyone about her dreams.

Well…” The shaman crossed his arms. “I guess you should come in.”

Thank you, uh–”

You should call me ‘Master’ for now. For the time being, it would be best if you didn’t speak anyone’s name out loud. You wouldn’t want to bewitch someone.”

The shaman led her inside, through a room cluttered with animal bones, gems, and feathers. There were candles on every surface, some lit, some burned out. Waxy smears dribbled down the sides of every shelf.

The shaman carelessly tossed a set of clothes. “Change into these.”

A grey shirt slipped through Maya’s fingers, landing on a floor caked with hair, crumbs, and mouse droppings. Maya wondered if the shaman had ever had a mother.

You’ll sleep here.”

The shaman pushed Maya into a closet-sized room lined with bookshelves. They held more paper than Maya had ever seen; the pride of her family was her mother’s grease-stained cookbook. Crammed between the shelves were a cot and a stack of stiff fur blankets.

Good night,” said the shaman, slamming the door behind him.

Wait!” Maya tried the door handle and found it stuck.

With the door closed, the room was so dark that Maya had to rely on touch and smell. The books on the shelves were leathery and reeked of mould. As Maya felt for the cot, insects crawled over her toes and crunched underfoot. Their shells stuck to her socks.

The cot wasn’t made for a girl of ten, so Maya climbed a bookshelf like a ladder. It wobbled, spilling books onto the floor. Something rustled under the cot, and Maya heard a scrape like an object being dragged. She kicked her drab clothes to the end of the bed, peeled off her socks, and threw them onto the floor. The rustling thing snuffled. Maya covered her mouth to keep from screaming, and snuggled under the fur blankets for security. They made her eyes itch, but they were all she had.

As Maya lay in the dark, the bedroom she had shared with her older brother for her entire life seemed so far away. She had never thought she would miss her brother’s snoring, her uncle’s bad jokes, or her mother’s endless lists of chores. Even under the blankets, she could feel the strangeness of this room, with its musty odours, rustlings, and the distant chanting of the shaman. Maya listened to the foreign, magical words and tried not to cry.

Like the story? Keep reading.

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