The warm afternoon sun wove between the trees and danced playfully across the surface of the water. A gentle breeze played with Avi's long dark hair as she sat by the edge of the shallow brook, filling water skins. It was tedious work.
Avi sighed as the skin she was holding under the surface of the brook slowly filled with water. It wasn't fair! All the other girls were back at the campsite helping the women preserve meat for the journey, or mending clothes, or looking after the infants. Why couldn't she have been given something to do back in camp? There was more than plenty to be done before the tribe started north tomorrow.
Avi pulled the water skin out of the brook, sealed its top, and laid it on the pile beside her. She had a good idea why she had been put to this particular task. This past winter had been her sixteenth; she was a grown woman now as far as the tribe was concerned. What set her apart from other girls of her age was that she was still unmarried.
It wasn't her fault of course; the boy to whom she had been promised since girlhood had managed to get himself killed the previous autumn. Avi snorted. She hadn't even liked that musclebound dolt anyways. When she'd learned that he had tried to take down that elk all by himself and gotten himself trampled to death instead, she could have jumped for joy.
But now that he was dead, and unable to marry her, (but more importantly, unable to give her any sons) the rest of the tribe saw Avi as something strange; neither a girl, nor fully a woman. The young women and girls who had once been Avi's closest friends now kept their distance, staring at her through narrowed eyes and whispering behind her back as she passed.
Avi shook her head and returned to her task. It might be tedious work, but she didn't mind. At least it took her away from the campsite and its many glares and whispers. There were no whispers here by the brook, only the wind.
Avi looked at the pile of empty water skins; there was only one remaining. Avi paused for a moment, and then glanced hurriedly over both shoulders. She was alone. She smiled and stretched out one hand over the flowing water...
The surface of the brook trembled beneath Avi's outstretched palm. Lightly at first, as though a sudden breeze had touched its surface. Avi focused on the ripples, and they began to grow. Avi lifted her hand, and the surface of the water rose with it, bulging and eventually pealing off into a bubble of water hanging beneath her palm in midair.
Avi quickly covered her mouth with her free hand to keep from giggling with delight. She'd had the gift of magic ever since she could remember, but she had never managed a bubble of water this big before! She quickly snatched up the last empty water skin and raised the tip to the bubble to siphon off the water.
The water skin was nearly half full now. Avi lowered her hand to call up another bubble of water from the brook. Maybe she could make an even bigger one this time!
There was a sudden rustling sound in a small bush beside the brook, and Avi nearly jumped out of her skin! She glanced over where the sound had come from. It was probably just a rabbit or a squirrel. Avi sighed with relief; she was still alone. That was good; magic was the sort of thing you needed to keep secret.
Avi screamed as the shape came bounding out of the underbrush directly behind where she had been looking! The shape collided with Avi and knocked her to the ground! Avi quickly rolled over to look up at the face of her assailant.
"I got you!" Kit giggled.
Avi flushed! How long had Kit had been stalking her? Had he seen anything? And if he had, would he tell anyone else? If the rest of the tribe knew that she had the gift of magic...
"I found something cool!" Kit said with a grin from ear to ear, "Wanna come and see it?"
A wave of relief washed over Avi. So Kit hadn't seen anything after all.
"I don't know, Kit," Avi said, as she slowly wriggled out from under the boy. Kit had been born two winters after she had been, but he was beginning to overtake her in terms of size.
"Come on!" Kit said, and lightly hopped forward so that he was back on top of Avi, "It's really amazing! I promise!"
"Kit," Avi said, trying to put on a more authoritative tone, "I have to get these water skins back to camp."
"What's the hurry?" Kid teased, "Are the mermaids going to steal them?"
"Kit," Avi tried to protest.
"Come on, Avi!" Kit said as he leaned down to whisper in her ear. "Let's go on an adventure!"
Kit's words took hold of Avi like a spell, and she forgot all about the stupid water skins. She matched Kit's grin, pressed her knees up against his stomach, and playfully pushed him off her. Kit somersaulted and landed on his feet like he always did, "Follow me! It's right up this way!"
Avi got to her feet, quickly brushed the dust off her skirt, and hurried after Kit. He led her off through the trees at a breakneck pace; gliding between the trees and the underbrush like a shadow. Avi struggled to keep pace with Kit; the boy had always been more agile than her.
The rest of the tribe saw Kit as a problem child; a troublemaker and prankster who shirked his responsibilities to go off on wild adventures. Of course, there wasn't much that could be done about it; Kit was also the chief's son, and one day he too would be chief after his father stepped down to join the Elders.
Maybe Kit could marry her? Avi played with the thought. Kit was promised to some other girl of course, but maybe once he was chief. Chiefs could do what they wanted, and that included taking multiple wives. Being a chief's wife would certainly solve the issue of her social standing.
Kit led Avi through the trees and up the steep slope at the edge of the valley. Avi huffed and puffed up the incline after him; she wasn't used to all this running and climbing. Suddenly, Kit hopped over one last fallen tree trunk and vanished from sight. Avi scrambled over the tree and looked around, trying to guess where Kit might have gone.
"Avi!" Kit's head popped up from beneath the fallen tree's roots, like a rabbit in its burrow, "Down here! I found a hole!"
"You brought me all the way up here for some hole in the ground?" Avi wheezed as she followed Kit down into the pit.
"It's not the hole," Kit said as Avi dropped down beside him. He pointed and said in an unusually quiet voice: "Look at that!"
Peeking out of the dirt, less than an arms-length away was a brilliant blue stone. It was about half the size of Avi's fist, and its clear surface looked like it had been smoothed by river water. The stone cast a pale blue glow on the damp soil around it. Avi looked closer, and she thought she could see a flicker movement from deep within the stone, almost like there was something alive inside it. Or as if the stone itself was alive.
"Wow!" the word slipped out of Avi's lips and hung in the air like a morning mist.
"Do you think it's a magic stone?" Kit whispered.
"Maybe," Avi whispered back as she stared deeper into the depths of the stone. She had never seen anything like it before, even in her wildest dreams. It was beautiful.
"I heard that magic attracts dragons," Kit whispered, "You think it's true?"
"I don't know," Avi said uneasily. She had never seen a dragon before, but she had heard about them from the Elders. They were said to be tremendous flying beasts with teeth and claws like jagged nightmares. Their scales were said to be harder than stone, and their breath was like a thousand burning fires. That was what the stories said about dragons, but Avi had no desire to know for certain.
Avi shivered at the thought that her use of magic might be luring such frightening creatures. It couldn't be true, could it? If dragons were attracted to magic, Avi should have seen dozens of them already, but she couldn't remember seeing even one. Maybe it was subtle? Maybe magic only attracted nearby dragons. But a stone like this...
"Let's take it!" Kit's hand shot out toward the strange glowing stone.
"What? No!" Avi caught Kit's arm before it reached the smooth surface of the stone.
"Aww," Kit groaned and shook his arm free of Avi's grasp, "Why not?"
"We don't know what it is!" Avi said frantically, "It could be dangerous!"
"Yeah, you're probably right," Kit muttered.
Avi glanced back at the glowing blue stone, but quickly tore her eyes from its captivating beauty, "Come on," she said, "We have to get those water skins back to camp."
"Right!" Kit vaulted out of the pit and hopped back over the fallen tree. "I'll meet you back at camp!" he called back.
"Kit! Wait!" Avi cried out, but to no avail. The boy was already way out of earshot. Avi sighed, and slumped back into the pit.
Once more, Avi's gaze turned back to the strange glowing stone peeking out of the dirt. She leaned forward to get a closer look. There was indeed something flickering in the depths of the stone, but always just at the corner of her eye; whenever her gaze moved to watch the flickering, it stopped and reappeared somewhere else in the stone. It was positively hypnotic.
Avi slowly reached out a trembling hand toward the stone. Of course it was nonsense, what Kit had said about magic attracting dragons. But what if the stone truly was magic? As her fingers neared, Avi could feel... something, a sort of unseen energy crackling between her fingers and the stone, like lightning. This stone was an object of tremendous power, no doubt about it. Terror and excitement mixed in Avi's mind like they never had before. The world was unraveling...
"Avi?" Kit's voice called from afar, "You coming?"
Avi jumped and hastily called back, "I'll be there in a minute!"
Avi looked back at the stone, and after a moments pause, she snatched the stone out of the dirt and stuffed it into a pouch in her skirt. It was just a stone; maybe a bit prettier than the average rock, but still just a stone like any other. There couldn't possibly be any harm in taking it.
Avi climbed out of the hole and started back down the slope. If those water skins didn't make it to the camp soon, she would be in real trouble!