The people came from a far, cold country and settled in kinder lands. When Mynah was born, there was great fanfare, for she was the fifth daughter of a family whose first four daughters had gained great renown with their natural gifts, even in a land full of gifted folk.
The first daughter was gifted with great beauty and even greater strength. When she was born, her father liked to say, he stuck his finger out to see if she would grasp it, and she gripped and pulled so hard, he nearly lost his finger. The girl grew big and strong and gorgeous. So coveted was her hand in marriage that she would only give it to the one who could best her in a match of wrestling with their bare arms. By the time Mynah was born, her first sister had herself borne children, twin sons who had already been chosen to train as squires to the highest knight-lord of their land.
The second daughter had inherited, as it was hoped one of the children would inherit, the gift of tongues. It was said the gift of tongues was not actually inherited but bestowed upon an unborn child, while it was still in its mother’s womb, and bestowed by one designated among the faere folk. If she wanted to speak with any of the faere folk in any region of the known world, she could do so with the ease of speaking her own native tongue. She never had to learn. She simply knew. The gift was so valuable, it was understood that the second daughter would go to the high court of the kingdom and study to become an ambassador to the faere folk. So when Mynah was born, her second eldest sister was not there to welcome her into the world.
The third daughter was the daughter of the waters. She could swim faster and farther and dive deeper than anyone in the region. She was a great champion, but before Mynah was born, she traveled to a country by the sea to win another contest of swimming. She swam out and out and farther and farther until even the ships that bobbed on the water, watching the swimmers, lost sight of her. Some say she was never seen again. Others say she can be seen by the light of a blue moon on nights when the ocean folk rise up and surface just to gaze at the stars before diving back into the watery depths.
The fourth daughter did not cry when she was born. She sang, for her gift was song. And her song changed as she changed, sweet and bitter, deep, haunting, lilting, joyous, raucous. When Mynah was born, the fourth sister still loved to sing and more than anything, she loved to sing her baby sister to sleep (or to waking). Her song was called golden when it warmed hearts and milky when it cooled rage. She was adept at playing many instruments, but her greatest instrument was her own voice.
Then came Mynah. And it was expected that Mynah too would be in some way extraordinarily gifted.
But Mynah, as it turned out, had no gifts. Her parents knew it would be so after the first year, but other relatives and her own sisters granted the unknowing little babe more patience. Mynah was four, perhaps, five years of age when she first began to realize that there was some difference between her and the other folk in town, and especially between her and her sisters. She began to notice that her eldest sister was stronger than her father. She began to notice how when her fourth sister sang, even the birds went quiet just to hear her. She began to wonder what her gift was, just as her family had been wondering since she was born.
She raced against her friends to find out if she was gifted with speed. She paid attention to her studies, to find out if she was gifted with intelligence. She hammered at her father’s smithy to find out if her gift was to forge metal into fine shapes. She helped her mother prepare meals to find out if hers was the gift of preparing magnificent meals. She imagined her family melting away in delight after taking one bite of something she made. She imagined the people of her town gasping in awe as she unsheathed a gleaming sword she had crafted for a knight-lord of the high court.
When none of her efforts revealed any gifts, she kept trying and hoping.
One day, she sat by a window, singing to a black-and-blue bird that sat on a branch just outside. Her favorite sister was Gia, the one gifted with song. Gia was not her sister’s name. But Mynah could not pronounce her true name and so called her “Gia” from a word in an old tongue, a word that once meant “sister.” Gia walked by just as Mynah was practicing her song, and she overheard. Mynah’s song held no enchantment. But it was pure and powerful. And lovely in the way that birdsong is lovely. Gia frowned, and from that moment on, she kept her distance from her sister, though she was not quite certain why. Mynah sang freely for herself and for the birds, in a common voice. But Gia by that time sang only for others and many constraints were put upon her gift to assure she did not lose it.
Mynah grew older and as she did, she grew sicker and sicker of being ungifted. She would joke darkly with her friends that her gift was being a disappointment to all whom she knew. She longed for true love, but had nothing to offer a lover. She longed to be praised, but had no skill worthy of praise. She wanted to be set apart from others for something extraordinary that she was or could do, not for being and doing nothing at all.
Her town, the whole countryside where she abided, was so full of those who were naturally gifted, that no one really put an effort into learning anything beyond the rudimentary skills anymore. It was not needed.
Mynah tried. There were many gifted scholars in the town. So the library was a place containing great knowledge. And though only the scholars visited it, the library was open to all townsfolk at any hour of the day or night. So Mynah went there often, searching, trying to find the one talent that she could learn and demonstrate, so that she might be deemed gifted. So that she might be deemed worthy.
But what the townsfolk called gifts held a sheen of enchantment, something that could be detected. Mynah did her best. She was not strong, but she was fairly clever. She found a book of spells, of potions. And she began to brew one.
Mynah fooled her family and the whole town for many months. It was a wondrous sight to see her leaping and jumping into the air like a cricket. Mynah too came to love it, though at first, she suffered a few cracked and broken bones. Her gift was the gift of the great leap. As her eldest sister had strong arms, Mynah had strong legs. And as she was of the age when young girls became young women, many found it easy to believe that her gift was one meant to manifest at such a time. Such a phenomenon was rare, but not unheard of.
But it was not a natural gift. It was a potion that she found in a book in the library. And though it was no crime to learn, it was a crime to learn a skill and pretend that it was a gift that one had all along. Mynah did her best to conceal the potion. Under guise of visiting a nearby town with her mother to search for a suitor, Mynah bought some of the rarer items that she needed for the potion. It was a pleasant potion at that. When it was done, it had the taste and color of berry juice, save for the aftertaste of grass and earth.
She knew she was caught when she came home one day and a minor member of the town’s council was sitting on her mother’s couch sipping rose petal tea from a shapely cup that Mynah had carved out of wood when she was searching for her gift. Mynah did not deny what she had done. She thought her mother and father would be furious. But when she saw their faces, she saw horror and grief.
It was an old punishment, no longer practiced because it was no longer needed. Until Mynah did what she did. The town was full of gifted folk, and each did the task for which he or she was suited. But if any were dishonest about having a gift, much harm might follow. A man who was as ungifted as Mynah was, once did as Mynah did, only his crime was far worse. For he claimed to have the gift of healing. He did as Mynah did and studied and learned what he could of healing. It was the rarest of gifts. Only one healer was born for every generation. And none had been found in that time. At first, his gift seemed true, for he healed with the knowledge he gained from his studies and his travels to lands where none were gifted in the way his people were gifted. But there soon came ills he could not heal. He was first suspected when he could not heal a blighted fruit tree in a neighbor’s orchard. When men, women, and children began to die under his care, it was discovered that he had no gift of healing. If he did, he could have laid his hands on any living thing and healed any ill. The man was banished from the town and from his family. Thereafter it became law that any who did as the false healer did would suffer the same fate.
Mynah was banished.
She was to be cast out of her home and out of the town for the rest of her days. She could take with her only what was hers. Her father and mother were forbidden from giving her anything, no clothes, no horse, no money.
Mynah had worked in her father’s smithy since the days she was high as his knees. She had more of her own possessions than many might guess being that she was ungifted. She loaded a pull-cart with her worldly goods as her father wept at the kitchen table and her mother railed against her for breaking her father’s heart.
But for all her anger, her mother had remained clear-headed enough to find a way to help her daughter. Sires could not help the banished, nor lay eyes upon the banished until after the turn of a year, but the law said nothing regarding siblings. Mynah received a shock when her mother and father left her at the gates of the town in the hands of a most unlikely traveling companion.
The fourth daughter, and closest sister to Mynah by age, and once upon a time, closest sister by affection, had long been away. Hers was the gift of song and as she grew older, her songs grew richer and more beautiful, as did she. She was lithe and golden-haired. Mynah remembered that her sister’s eyes once held a natural kindness that was now overcome by unfavorable sentiments. There was disdain in those eyes now, and a touch of impatience and weariness. Gia used to delight in singing to Mynah until something had seemed to turn her against her little sister. Mynah never knew what.
“Fool,” Gia said as she walked her sister toward the caravan of four wagons. “You could have gotten worse than banished. You could have killed yourself drinking some potion you made just by finding it in a book that you know nothing about. Scholarship and potion-making are gifts, and you are not the possessor of such gifts. Everyone knows what you were thinking. Everyone pities you, your longing for a gift. But their pity is no reason for you to go unpunished. And for dragging me into your punishment, you will be doubly punished. I will see to that.”
Mynah felt shame at first, then a burst of hope when her sister seemed to care whether she lived or died. Then a slow-burning anger churned in her gut and her heart as her flaxen-haired golden-voiced sister dared to claim that she understood what it felt to be ungifted.
“How many lashes will you give me, my lady?” Mynah asked, mocking the way her sister’s retinue addressed her. Gia was no highborn lady, though she looked like one with her careful curls lying about her silvery black cloak.
To Mynah’s surprise, her sister laughed. It was not a merry laugh, but an amused and approving laugh. Gia gave her sister a sidelong glance and a flash of the old kindness pierced through the film of misery. Mynah took a breath then, filled with hope, for in those first steps she took away from her home, she felt that she might be taking her first steps toward something as well.
As she climbed into a caravan wagon, she thought about what her plan had been. She had maps in her pack. She had planned to walk to the nearest town and shelter there, perhaps even stay for a while, earning the money to move farther and farther away. The banishment proclaimed that she had a year to leave the region. She had been afraid. She had no great coats, though it was summer, and she would likely not freeze. She had no way to build a fire, though she had brought some books written by scholars who traveled with wilderness men and wrote down all the knowledge they gathered.
Mynah was a towns’ girl. She loved to stroll in the woods but had never lived in them. She was not particularly afraid of insects, or mice, or other little creatures small enough to crawl into one’s collar. But she dreaded the thought of having to sleep against a tree in the darkest part of night and not knowing what moved about her. The town council had been kind enough to let her stay in town until the moon was full. There were no brigands or villains to fret about in their region. But once she crossed into the lands where most folk were ungifted like she was, that would be another danger she would face.
She had prepared herself for all of that, wondering if she would die for her ungiftedness before she had even fulfilled her banishment. She had resolved to make it outside of the region, so as not to further shame her mother and father. They never told her they planned on asking Gia to escort her. Perhaps it was because they were not certain that Gia would agree.
Mynah was to head toward the kingdom’s capital, far to the east, and veering north. There her third eldest sister, blessed with the gift of speaking all the tongues of the faere folk, resided at the court of the king and queen. She would be sent word that Mynah was in need. Long had she been away from home, as if she too had been banished. Apprentice ambassadors were not allowed to leave the capital until their training was complete. Mynah did not remember her third sister, who left before Mynah had learned to toddle.
Gia had been tasked with taking Mynah all the way to the capital if need be, or until her elder sister sent a retinue of her own to escort Mynah.
Mynah’s heart broke for her mother and father as her sister explained all to her. They would ache for her, perhaps forever, for they had never left their region, much less had they ever traveled to the capital. But they had done all they could to make sure that their ungifted, ordinary daughter, had a chance at an extraordinary life at court.
Mynah did not think it would be so easy. Her sister likely had very little if any power at court and was most likely much like the scholar’s in her home town, tucked away in the corner of a library, reading and writing and mulling. Her sister likely had no great riches to speak of. Even if she did, after the shame she had brought upon her family, Mynah would not take from her sisters. She would earn from them.
“Why did you agree to take me?” Mynah asked as their caravan trundled along. A mild sun cast a cozy yellow light and the carriage seats were affixed with cushions so the bumps did not hurt her bottom. She had never ridden in a finer carriage. “Does you tour take you to the capital?”
Gia sat across from her and stared outside the window. Birds were singing welcome to the early morning sunlight. She did not answer, though she glanced at Mynah and glanced outside the window a few times.
Though Mynah was still young, having only lived one-and-twenty years, and though she still felt the impatience of that youth and the longing for the sister that Gia had once been to her, she held her tongue. She sat in silence and resumed a practice that she had started before she had the harebrained idea of making a jumping potion. She gave a sigh for the gifts she had not been given. Then she gave thanks for the gifts she had been given. Her sister did not speak to her, may not ever be fond of her again. Perhaps Gia was not taking her because she cared for Mynah, but because she cared for her mother and father, and it was their wish that Gia should keep their youngest daughter safe.
“What are you smiling at?” Gia asked.
Mynah had not realized she was smiling.
“Thank you,” Mynah said.
Gia’s feathery brow creased slightly. “For what?”
“For coming with me. I was scared to go alone.”
Gia’s brow relaxed. She quickly glanced again outside the window and said nothing.
“Do you remember her?” Mynah asked as she watched some of her sister’s many companions frolic in the pond. She was asking after her mythical third sister.
“No,” Gia answered. She was wearing common clothing that day, tunic, shirt, and walking boots, much like Mynah’s.
They were close to a town where Gia would be singing. But she would not be performing alone. She had a dancing troupe and a band of musicians. All were enjoying a picnic before they headed into the town for the evening. It was the third town away from home. Mynah realized that if she had been walking, she would not have even reached the first town away home by that day.
Gia offered a napkin full of cheese and bread to Mynah. “She left before I was born. And by the time I was old enough to know I had more than two sisters, she was already a legend lost at sea.”
“Will we be passing by that land? The one where she had her last contest?” Mynah’s neck felt taut. She could not fathom that she was speaking with her sister as she once did. She wanted to ask all the questions at once. The strain of holding them back was making her shoulders ache.
“No,” Gia said. “The sea where she vanished is farther east even than the capital, so we’re told.”
“I wrote a song about her.”
Gia’s lazy attention snapped away from the swimmers and toward Mynah, who felt the sinking in the pit of her stomach. She was ungifted in song, ungifted in prose and poetry. But she had tried so many things when she was searching for her gift. One thing she tried was poetry and song.
“Did you ever sing it?” Gia asked, speaking the words slowly. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
Mynah dropped her gaze.
“I don’t find you to be blasphemous as others do, sister, but you are odd. What an inconvenience for you to have to learn how to compose music, how to sing. Why go to the effort if that is not your gift?”
Mynah raised her gaze again and looked into her sister’s eyes. “For those of us who have no natural gifts, it is what we must do.”
“Then how can you know what you must do in your life? If you must be a wife and mother, or a warrior, or a tailor, or a dancer?”
“You choose. You choose what you like.”
“Such freedom,” Gia said, “sounds lovely.”
“Then why did you try to give yourself a gift? And a ridiculous one at that? What good is leaping about anyway? Would you help with the harvest by jumping up to catch fruit from the trees?” Gia started laughing.
Mynah frowned, hurt at first. She had brought the remainder of her potion with her, in secret of course. Its weight often made her wonder what she had been thinking, what price she had paid for the troublesome gift. She thought past her scrapes, bruises, and broken bones, and realized her sister was right.
She chuckled hesitantly. “The potion was the easiest one,” she said.
Gia shook her head. “Fool.” She burst out laughing again. And Mynah joined her.
That night, Mynah sat in an open amphitheater on one side of the town that was so big, it should have been called a city. She could not imagine what the capital would look like if it was even vaster and filled with even more people. She was nervous and excited. The air was crisp and wet with a light misting of rain. The dancing troupe and the band of merry musicians were amazing to behold. Mynah longed to hear her sister sing, but thought she knew how it would sound, for Gia had been practicing for days.
But with the stone bouncing and carrying her voice out and upward, Gia’s clear and mighty song struck Mynah like a shock of icy water. Hers was a true gift. It was enchanting, but it could not be enchantment. The strength of the song, the way it chilled Mynah’s spine and yet eased her heart, that belonged to Gia. Mynah had always thought that the gifted wielded their gifts without effort, but it was not so. Gia’s whole body sang as she pulled in the air that all breathed and pushed out the same air now transformed into spirit and beauty.
Banishment was not the torment that Mynah feared it would be. In fact, Mynah felt not that she had been banished, but that she was being brought back from banishment.
“This was bound to happen,” Gia said, peaking through the curtain of the caravan wagon in which she, Mynah, and three of Gia’s accompanying singers were riding.
Night had fallen hours ago, and the caravan was ordered to ride through it to the next township. Mynah’s banishment had been fulfilled two days past, when the caravan crossed out of her home region. Gia had traveled once outside of the region, with a larger retinue, and so many armed soldiers that she had never felt any worry. No brigands had dared attack then.
But now, they were four wagons and most of the occupants and travelers were performers, not fighters. A scout had seen a band of horseman galloping toward the caravan at top speed. Gia’s troupe had just been paid, and handsomely. But they had to carry that wealth to a larger township before they could store it safely.
Gia had been advised to stay in town until daybreak, and her troupe wished to carouse on their last night in town. But she had an appointment to keep in the next township and was fearful of getting caught in the poor weather that the local scryer had seen on the horizon.
The thieves were upon them. Gia’s half-shadowed expression looked frightened but also focused. She listened to the sounds of the brigands riding past and flanking the caravan. She peered through the window.
The only idea Mynah could think of was to the use her jumping potion. But she didn’t have enough for everyone to use. The caravan jerked ahead faster as the frightened horses dashed onward trying to get away from pursuers that were unencumbered with wagons and possessions. Mynah felt pity for the horses and wondered if the jumping potion would work on them.
Suddenly, Gia pulled aside the curtain and yelled out to the brigands. It took a moment for Mynah to hear above the din of screams and hooves that her sister was declaring a surrender.
They had not lucked into the kind of brigands who only stole possessions but meant no harm to people. Mynah heard the dancers whisper that Gia had doomed them all. After the call for surrender, the caravan had slowed. Its occupants had been made to line up on the road, while the brigands searched the caravan for valuables.
The guards that Gia had hired to protect the caravan were all grouped and circled by brigands holding out crossbows and swords. One guard only stood with the troupe of performers. The captain, who stood protectively beside Gia, despite having been disarmed.
The leader of the brigands eyed the troupe of performers with no regard. Gia called out to him and his expression was one of a man being troubled by the buzzing of a fly. He rolled his eyes and at last glanced in her direction.
“May I sing?” she asked.
Mynah felt a sudden burst of anger, not for herself, but for her sister. Gia’s gift of song was about to die. Mynah wished she had the gift of strength like her oldest sister. But even if she did, she could never fight so many brigands off, not before they killed her and the troupe. She wished she could speak to the faere folk like the sister she was trying to reach and would never see again. For if she could, maybe she could beg the help of the faere folk who lived in the dark trees that surrounded them.
The leader of the brigands scoffed, but before he turned away from her, he gave a nod.
Gia began to sing.
Mynah closed her eyes, expecting a sweet dirge, or perhaps a song that begged for mercy, or even a defiant song of triumph. Instead what struck her ears was nightmare and dismay. It was discord and dissonance. The words told a tale of tragedy, the melody twisted and jerked. Gia’s voice was the voice of a dark and ancient being singing of days before starlight and sun lit the creation. Days when things lurched into being that should not have been. Days when things far worse than brigands roamed the young and defenseless world. Days when beings gifted with great power wielded that power with sound intent to unforeseen ends.
Mynah felt her heart twist and jerk with the melody. Her mouth went dry.
“Cover your ears,” someone whispered fiercely. And Mynah did, but she still felt as if she might lie down and die of grief. The song…it was so…terribly…sad….so…terrible….
Before her eyes, the brigands began to fall unconscious. Some of them managed to draw weapons. One fired a crossbow, but the bolt missed its mark as the captain of Gia’s guards knocked her to the ground.
She stopped singing then and Mynah felt relieved of the suffocating, pressing sadness. She took a gasping breath. The ground was ablaze in many small puddles of flame as the brigands had dropped their torches.
A voice was directing the troupe to come to their senses, pick up the torches, tie up the brigands, and round up the horses. It was the captain of the guards. Mynah turned toward his voice and saw that he was crouched on the ground with his hands on Gia’s shoulders. Her face was as pale as the icy sliver of moon above them. Her golden hair looked just as pale and milky. The color had been leached out of her. And Gia’s cheeks look sunken, as if she hadn’t eaten for many days.
Mynah felt a panic rise within her. She scrambled over to her sister and dropped to her knees.
She grasped Gia’s face in her hands as tears formed in her eyes. The captain backed away to let Mynah move closer.
“Gia!” Mynah leaned forward and kissed her sister’s cheek. Gia stared ahead as if she were looking into another world, the terrible world of her song.
Mynah didn’t know what to do. The memory of the last bright moment she shared with her sister, the picnic by the pond, bloomed in her mind.
Mynah began to sing.
Fool! she thought, hearing her sister’s voice say the word. Mynah hadn’t the gift of song. She could not sing Gia out of the misery that she had wielded to save them all.
Mynah sang the song of their lost sister.
Fool! she thought to herself. Pick a happy song.
But as she wept in fear and panic for her sister, Mynah sang in a quivering and tuneless voice of her lost sister, a heroic sister, daughter of the waters, a champion who could swim against rushing waters, dive down to the realm of the ocean folk and bring back sea treasures. She dreamt of her sweet little sisters. If ever they took to the waters, they would never drown, for she would rescue them.
Mynah changed the words of her song then. For it was Gia who had saved them. Mynah had lived in a town full of gifted folk and had never seen a gift wielded so. She had always known the burden of being ungifted, but had never truly seen the burden of being gifted.
She took a breath and steadied herself and her voice and kept singing, more clearly now, with strength. The tune was steady and full of resolve. Her voice was full of love. She heard then the light plucking of a harp. One of the musicians had started playing. Another joined with the piping of a pipe.
Gia blinked at last. Her feathery brow creased slightly.
Mynah sang and the troupe played and sang behind her. Mynah stopped and hugged her sister close. When she pulled away, she saw that Gia was no longer staring ahead but looking down. Her face looked weary. She lifted her gaze slightly but dropped it again.
“Mynah,” she said.
“You are not gifted,” she said, still looking down as if her eyes were too weary to rise. “But if you practice, you could be quite good.” She shifted her head and a strand of pale golden hair fell across a cheek that was regaining its color.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel