As night fell she peered at the wan pearl of the pale Moon and wondered....

It was a balmy night, scented heavily by the perfume of the small magenta flowers that grew up the spines of every tree she could see.

Flower Devils, the locals called them. They were beautiful flowers with a heavenly scent, but they were deadly. The leaves were thorny, the petals were poison, and their vines would strangle the life out of every other plant they touched.

When she was from the horrid things were not allowed to live, pulled from the ground once its thorny leaves sprouted, never its purple red bloom allowed to bud.

It was lying under the Moon, gazing up at the dead branches swallowed whole by the Flower Devils, that she began to understand what a truly wild place she had come to.

She was a long way from home. Impossible to get any further, she thought, since there was no home for her. A homeland maybe, but never a home again.

She took some comfort from the Moon, knowing that she and her sister Stars would be the same no matter where she went.

One planet. One sky, one Mother Moon and millions of sister Stars to protect her like overzealous aunties. Pick your deity, she thought. Or pray to them all. It made no difference, because the creation of time had been long ago, and now the one Moon and Stars all were deaf to the pleas of her land bound children.

What she wondered was if they had ever had ears at all.

Once such thoughts would have immediately caused her to say a quick prayer for forgiveness, but not now. Not with the screams of her family still loud in her ears, and not with the stench of dragons breath still soiling her hair.

It was a smell she feared would never come out, because it remained there after many drenches in icy rivers and filthy lakes. The stench of reptile breath, the smell of dead and rotten things, the smell of the Underside.

She shuddered and curled onto her side, pulling her knees to her chest, her chin to her knees, one hand held out to the side, fingers touching the hilt of the sword, always.

Her brothers sword, too heavy really for her to use, but threatening enough for her to brandish and bluff her way out of most petty scrapes, as she had done a few times since running from the burning farmland.

She closed her eyes and called it back in perfect clarity. Wheat burning to ash, her house an alter of flames. Somewhere inside her father and her mother still were. Her brother was in the wheat field, probably ash also.

And above it all the beast, great and black, its belly and long throat glowing with the growing of another fire. In the night sky it had looked much like a storm cloud about to burst. Only its rain was deadly and hot.

It was an Underside beast, no doubt. If it had been daylight she could have looked into the face of its handler, and then she could have gone quietly insane. Then she might have died in flame like her family.

Then she wouldn’t be laying in mourning with nothing but an unwieldy sword and blasphemous thoughts.

No good, she thought, this place is no good.

It was the flowers, she was sure. The Little Devils were making her mind sick with their perfume.

It was a soul poison they carried. Not one that killed the body, but one that would rot its core, kill the brain, destroy the parts that made one human.

No good at all.

She needed a shelter. Somewhere to hide from the sluggish wind that pushed around the flowers smell. Somewhere to lay, also, away from the Moon. She did not feel like lying to rest under the eye of an abusive mother that night.

There was nowhere, she knew.

The last town was many days behind her, the next one just as many ahead. That was, of course, if the map she had bought from a wandering merchant was a true map, and not one he had drawn for a quick coin in his purse.

There was a stream not far, she knew. If she followed the stream far enough she was bound to come onto a camp at its edge, but in these wilder lands strangers rarely offered to spare space in their tents.

There was a smaller chance of her following the road and happening across a small farm. No one would spare her a bed, but some sandy hearted matron might offer her a sleep in their barn. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d slept in hay.

Most likely, if she did find a home, it wouldn’t be a farmer. It would belong to one of the Maganese. They were not bad people, exactly, but they were less than human.

They encouraged the growth of the Little Devil flowers. Sometimes they brewed a weak tea from its petals and drank it. Sometimes, for a high fee, they would brew a strong tea and send it away with those in need of revenge.

They were doctors, after a fashion. They used many plants aside from the Little Devils. She’d heard tales of them aiding a woman in preventing a child from growing in her belly. She’d also heard of them helping women rid their belly of a child already there.

There was one Maganese very near where she lay. It was said that he had been gifted by the Goddesses.

He wasn’t just a Maganese potions dealer, they said. He was magical. He had a marks on the backs of his hands, and one hand could heal, while the other could take life away.

The mark on his healing hand was a tree, his arm its trunk, his fingers its branches. He wore a cloth around his killing hand, and the only ones to ever see the mark were never left to tell what it was.

He had a soft spot for children, they said, curing the young for free as he passed through a town, selling his potions only to the adults.

The story told most often was of the baby girl.

He had been taken to a baby girl freshly dead. Her body was still warm in her crib, but her breath was gone and her heart still. He had lain the back of his healing hand on the baby’s breast and she had breathed in a breath then cried out into the night with healthy lungs.

She would like to meet him, to ask how many coins she’d have to press into his palm for him to heal her aching soul.

He was a special case though, and she wanted to avoid the Maganese as much as possible.

You have to leave your bed and move before you can avoid anyone, she thought, knowing that she was still laying curled in the grass beneath the strangled trees, still breathing in the flowers scent, and not far from not caring anymore.

She’d never realized how strong it could be, the Little Devil. How little she had learned in the place where it was not allowed to bloom.

Her lids were heavy, her heart stony, and her arm tired. She pulled her fingers away from the hilt of her brothers sword, wrapping it around her herself. As her eyes fluttered shut she thought she saw something rush past her, toward the trunk of a vine covered tree.

Not smart friend, she thought, and then she slept.