io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “Probably Still the Chosen One” by Kelly Barnhill. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast. Enjoy!
“You must wait here,” the Highest of the High Priests told her. “We will return and bring you back to the Land of Nibiru once we have found the circlet to place upon your head.” The very mention of the circlet made the High Priest tremble with joy. Though the journey through the portal had been brief, the Land of Nibiru was many universes away from where Corrina now stood—in her own small kitchen, in her own small house. The priest looked strange, she realized, with his headdress and robe and flowing beard, next to the magnet-encrusted refrigerator and grimy cabinets and microwave that always smelled of cheese. She had not noticed the priests’ strangeness back in Nibiru. Everything was strange there. “You are the Chosen One. We are certain of it. And you will sit on the High Throne and your Rule will be benevolent and long.” He bowed low, and his long beard draped across the vinyl floor. It needed to have been swept days ago. And mopped. Cheerios clung to the long, gray strands.
“Okay,” Corrina said. She was barefoot and filthy and was likely leaving foot-shaped stains on the floor from the juice of an unknown berry, oozing now off her feet. She was eleven years old. The High Priest told her this was the normal age for a Chosen One. He had read all the history books, so he knew.
Corrina knew that she didn’t feel like the Chosen One. She had spent the last year and a day in the Land of Nibiru. She had learned to wield a sword and defend herself with a shield and make camp using only pine boughs and moss and the sustenance of the forest. She learned how to read a map and form a battle plan and howl over the dead. She was also very good at math—or she was before she left. She looked around. Her parents surely must have worried while she was gone.
“I won’t be long,” the High Priest promised. “Only a week at the very most. But the Zonniers are hungry for your blood, I’m afraid, so I must seal the Portal behind me. You will not be able to follow. You must wait for us to come and get you. You must not wander away.”
Corrina looked around. She never cared much for the kitchen. “What if I go a little bit away? Like to the next room.”
“We would prefer that you remain right here.”
“What if my mother is here when you come?” Corrina asked.
“We shall slay any that stand in the way of the Chosen One.”
“I’d rather you didn’t slay my mother.”
“All right, then,” the High Priest said. “We will simply bind her hands and feet, and then we will take you with us.”
“That is probably not a good idea either,” Corrina said. “My dad is usually gone for two weeks at a time on his truck. What if no one comes for her? She’ll die.”
“Fine.” The High Priest seemed annoyed. “We will give her a quick knock to the head and she will fall unconscious.”
Corrina shrugged. She and her mother were not particularly close—her mother wished for a girl who shared her love of shoes. Instead she had Corrina, with her scabby knees and her filthy feet and her love of t-shirts with pictures of skulls on them. Still. It’s not as though she wanted anything bad to happen to her mother. She was her mother, after all.
“That’ll be okay,” she said at last. “But not too hard.”
“It is imperative, Princess, that you remain here. You mustn’t move. You mustn’t stray. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Corrina said. “But what if I have to use the restroom?”
“What’s a restroom?”
He sighed. “If you must. Just don’t go far. No journeys, if you take my meaning.”
She did, and she promised. And she wasn’t interested in journeying anywhere, anyway. She had been in the Land of Nibiru for longer than she planned, ever since she discovered that strange metal door in the cupboard under the sink—the door that only she could see. And then the Resistance needed her. And it felt good to be needed. After the hardships and worry and travel she had done—usually without sleep—she felt as though she could lie in her bed for another month. How astonished her mother would be to see her!
The High Priest’s eyes swelled with tears. He fell to his knees and embraced the girl, sobbing as he did so. “May the gods protect you while I’m away. And may the days be short between now and when you return to us. My precious princess.”
And with that, he lowered himself—all creaking joints—to the floor and caterpillar-crawled into the cupboard under the sink, wriggling into the portal and out of sight. Once the metal door closed, it vanished.
It was only a matter of time.
A week, he had said.
And then she would leave her home and her family and her world forever. And be the Chosen One. Corrina had never been special before. She did well in her studies, but she had few friends and usually simply blended in with the crowd. In Nibiru, there were flags with her face on them and songs in her honor. There was something to that, she decided.
Corrina looked at the time. 11:43. Funny, she thought. That’s the same time as when I left a year ago. It’s quite the coincidence.
She went down the hall to the bathroom and took a long shower, half-expecting her mother to come bursting through the door and plucking her naked self out of the stall, hugging her tight after being gone so long. But she didn’t.
Well, Corrina thought. It’s not as though we are close.
She dried off and went to bed.
The next day, her mother ate breakfast and poured coffee.
“Do you want cereal or pancakes?” her mother said. As though it was a regular day. And it was. When Corrina looked at the newspaper, she saw that the date was not a year and a day after she was last in this kitchen, but just a day. The next day. And no time at all had passed while she was in Nibiru.
So, she thought. Time works differently there. That could be a problem.
The High Priest had told her to stay near the kitchen, and so she stayed.
She stopped going to school. She’d make a show of walking to the bus, but would hide in the bushes until her mother went to work, and then called herself in sick once the house was empty. After punishments and phone calls and meetings that she did not always attend, Corrina and her mother decided to try homeschooling, provided that Corrina do it herself while her mother left every day to go work at the hair salon.
“I expect you to do it right,” her mother said while lighting her fourth cigarette of the day. “Don’t embarrass me when you take those state exams.”
Corrina didn’t. She got the highest score in the whole state that year. Her old school put her picture on the front page of their newspaper, calling her their star student and taking all the credit, even though she was no longer enrolled. She didn’t care. She took books out of the library on mathematics and astronomy, as well as gardening, martial arts, hunting, weapon maintenance, and survivalist memoirs.
When her dad came home from his long hauls, she taught him some basic moves so that he could spar with her in the back yard.
“Where did you learn this stuff?” her father said, red-faced and panting. He clutched at his heart, but claimed the exercise was doing him good.
Corrina shrugged. “Books,” she said.
She didn’t tell him about the ruined temple and the bearded priests, and the youngest one who handed her a staff and said, “Now. Defend yourself,” and then he attacked her. She didn’t tell him how proud the priests were when she was finally able to swipe his feet, sidekick his belly, and send him pinwheeling to the stone floor with a tremendous thud. She didn’t tell him about the thrill she felt when she first held a sword in her hand, first felt that honed edge slice the air in front of her. She didn’t tell him how good—how very, very good—it felt to bedangerous.
“Books, eh?” Her father chuckled. “Well, that’s something. I had no idea books were so dangerous.”
The word thrilled her to the core. She had half a mind to sucker punch her dad, but his breathing was ragged and raw. She helped him inside instead.
A year passed. The High Priest didn’t come back.
The summer before Corrina turned thirteen, her parents split up. They called her into their bedroom. They had been screaming at each other all day. Corrina had spent the day sitting on the kitchen floor right next to the cupboard under the sink, trying to will the High Priest to return. When she was called into their room, her parents sat at the edge of the bed, holding hands. Their eyes were red.
They explained what a divorce was, as though it was a brand new concept that Corrina had never heard of before.
“Which parent would you like to live with, honey?” her dad said gently, as though it was a foregone conclusion. It was no secret that she preferred her father. Her mother checked her nails.
“Which one of you is keeping the house?” Corrina asked slowly.
“Your mother is,” her dad said. “I found a nice apartment right next to the library.”
“I’ll stay with mom,” Corrina said. Corrina’s mother’s head snapped up and her father instantly began to cry.
“Are you sure?” he faltered.
How could she explain it to her dad? Though the memory of her time in the Land of Nibiru—the metal door, the near-constant rain, the Zonnier Hordes howling for her blood, the band of resisters and rebels who were bound to one another by something bigger than incidental family status or belief or anger, but by love, camaraderie, and brotherhood—was as fresh to her now as it had been the day she returned, there was a part of her that had begun to wonder if it was nothing more than a dream. They hadn’t come back. They promised to come back. They promised to return for her. They called her Princess, after all. The Chosen One. But she was no longer eleven. And she was growing by the day.
“I’m very sure,” she said. “I can’t move. I just can’t.”
And she didn’t.
Another year passed. The High Priest still hadn’t come back.
Corrina kept a stack of sketch notebooks filled with her memories of Nibiru. Drawings of people, ruined buildings, landscapes. Drawings of plants, flowers, animals. When she sat at the kitchen table and closed her eyes while facing the cupboard under the sink, she could see all of Nibiru in her mind’s eye as clearly as if she was there.
But she noticed something else, too.
As she aged, she began to notice things about the landscape and the Resistance that she had not noticed when she was eleven. For example, while the High Priests and the Resistance were both ostensibly fighting the same enemy, they didn’t seem to be talking to one another. Indeed, after she had warned the Resistance and helped them ready themselves for the battle, the High Priests were nowhere to be seen. She only was brought to them later, after a High Priest had found her out in the forest gathering berries, and told her that the best berries were over here, next to the old abbey.
And later, when she returned to the Resistance, there had been a party.
She had a friend in the Resistance, a boy named Cairn, who was a few years older than she was, who spat on the ground whenever the High Priests were mentioned.
“Old windbags,” he said. “They aren’t fighting with us.”
“But they want the same thing. Don’t they?” Corrina was honestly confused.
He spat again. “Nah. They just want not to be slaughtered by the Zonnier Hordes. Of course, the reason why they are here in the first place is the High Priests’ fault. They convinced the King to attack. They said the Zonnier were weak. And it was us—my parents and my whole village—who were sent into the battle with no training and poor weapons. And now the Zonnier want revenge. They razed the Noble City, and I don’t blame them. But they have no call killing us. We just want to farm in peace.”
At the kitchen table, Corrina drew a picture of Cairn—his grown-out hair, his lopsided smile, the scar cut across his cheek. She had such a crush on him then! If she was honest with herself, she had a crush on him now. Even now. She drew his pet—a smallbeast named Ricu—perched on his shoulder. It looked like a largish rat with fluffy fur and very long ears. She loved Ricu, though Ricu did not love her back.
How old was Cairn now, she wondered? Does he wonder what happened to her? If she ever made it back to the Kingdom of Nibiru, she might be old. Or maybe he would. Would he even recognize her then?
She looked at the picture. It seemed so alive to her—as though Cairn and Ricu would come leaping out and the three of them would have their own adventure. She laid her hand on the page. It was just paper.
Another year passed. The High Priests did not come.
When she was fifteen, her mother floated the idea of the two of them moving in with her very rich boyfriend. Corrina dug in her heels. “Absolutely not,” she said. “You can move in with him, but I am staying.”
“But I thought—” her mother said.
“I can’t move,” Corrina said. “I just can’t.”
They fought and fumed, but eventually the rich boyfriend moved to Rio with his secretary.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Corrina said as her mother slammed her bedroom door. It wasn’t true, though. Corrina hadn’t warned anyone.
(She had warned the Resistance about the coming Hordes. She had seen them approach right when she tumbled out of the Portal. It was her first action that she took in the Land of Nibiru, and it saved a thousand lives. It wasn’t really a thousand, but that was the story they told after that. It was the reason they thought she was the Chosen One. Just dumb luck.)
Another year passed. And another. The High Priest still hadn’t come back.
When she was seventeen, her mother and father sat her down to discuss the possibility of going to college. She had gotten her provisional diploma from the State Homeschooling Office, and had knocked her college entrance exams out of the stratosphere.
“You can go anywhere you want,” her father had said.
“I’ve gotten emails from the professors you’ve done your MOOC courses with,” her mother said. “They’ve all highly encouraged me to have you apply to their programs. Especially the man from Oxford. Wouldn’t that be fancy! We could buy you new shoes!”
“I can’t move,” Corrina said, and her parents’ faces fell. “I just can’t.”
She explained to them about online college. She told them that she had already started—and look! Straight A’s. Library science. It was a real degree, she assured them.
But there was another reason why she couldn’t leave that had nothing to do with the Land of Nibiru. She met a boy who was using the computers at the library to look for jobs. He was new in town. “Needed a fresh start,” he had said. He grew up on a farm, and didn’t want to spend another day smelling the lake of pig shit that sat across the road from his parents’ house.
He would come over to the house while Corrina’s mother was gone at work. Corrina taught him how to box and how to spar and how to flip a man onto the floor when he wasn’t looking. And then he flipped her onto her bed when she wasn’t looking, and taught her something else entirely. Within two months she was throwing up her breakfast. After four months, she was shopping online for new brassieres to accommodate her growing bustline and for pants with elastic panels at the belly.
“Grandparents?” her mother said, turning pale and beginning to fan her face.
Corrina sat quietly, looking at her hands. Frankly, she was shocked they hadn’t notice. She had been showing for well over a month. Her parents just didn’t notice much.
“Oh, hell no,” her father said, storming out of the house.
The boy moved in the following week.
A little over a year later she was pregnant again, this time with twins.
Two years after that, she was pregnant yet again. A singleton, which was a relief. Her mother had moved to Florida with a man named Arnold who lived on a boat in the Keys. Her father had died. The boy—not a boy any longer—after learning about the new pregnancy, had decided to move back to the farm. There was money in pigs, he said. And there was a girl who had broken his heart before but wanted him now. He told Corrina that the children couldn’t come with him, but he would send checks every month. Surely she understood.
Corrina did. Sometimes people just don’t come back. She knew that now. She kissed his cheek and comforted the children as he got into his truck and drove away forever.
Another year passed. The cupboard under the sink was just a cupboard.
Breakfast was loud. The baby yelled. The twins yelled. Her oldest yelled. Corrina never yelled. There was no point. She kept her eyes on the newspaper. There was a rattling sound. Like a cupboard door shaking back and forth. Corrina pressed her lips together and didn’t investigate. There was no door under the sink. She said this to herself over and over again. She knew now that there never had been. Or she was pretty sure.
She had managed to secure a job as an archivist for a law firm down the road. It was her first job in the real world and not a freelance gig on the internet. The pay was good and they had onsite childcare, which was better, and she was grateful to have landed it. But it meant that she would be out of the house.
Her eyes drifted to the cupboard door under the sink.
“Mama,” said Jacob, the oldest. He was four now. “What are you looking at?
He was always the most attuned to her. She had read that oldest children were like that.
“Nothing,” she said. The door appeared to rattle. Just a little. All on its own. She told herself that she was imagining it.
“Nothing,” said Alice, the girl portion of the twins. “Nothing, nothing, nothing,” sang Andrew, her twin brother.
Rufus, the baby, had no words. He just pawed at Corrina’s breasts and opened his mouth wide. At only seven months old, he was already twenty-three pounds. A tank. At this rate, he’d be bigger than the twins before his first birthday.
“Mommy starts a new job tomorrow,” Corrina said.
Jacob wrinkled his brow. He looked around the kitchen. “Where?” he said, as though a job was sitting in a bag on the counter, like a new toy.
“Not far,” she said. “Down the road.”
“Daddy isn’t coming back.”
“I know that,” Jacob said, his cheeks going quite red.
Corrina readjusted Rufus’s weight so as not to overburden her shoulders. His thick muscles kicked and rippled and squirmed. It was like trying to nurse a gorilla, she thought.
“No, we will be going together. You and your sister and your brothers and me. I will work in the basement, and you guys will go to the day care center. A school. We can walk there in the morning and walk home at suppertime. You’ll like it.”
Jacob looked skeptical. “I don’t think I’ll like it.”
“I like it,” Alice said. Alice liked everything.
“I like it, too,” Andrew said. Andrew liked anything that Alice liked. It drove Alice crazy. She whacked her brother on the head with a block. He didn’t seem to notice.
The next morning, before the kids got up, Corrina stood in the kitchen. It wasn’t as though she had never left the house. She did. She went to the store occasionally. And the library. And she went in for her interview. But she never left for very long. Andnever all day.
Still. It was time. How many years had it been? Too many. Eleven was a long time ago. And here she was, wasting her life. It was time to rejoin the world—she and her kids together.
Her eyes drifted back to the cupboard door. Was it her imagination, or was it rattling again? It was her imagination, clearly. She was sure of it. Still, she reached into her correspondence box and pulled out a blue note card and a black marking pen.
“BE RIGHT BACK,” she wrote in large, bold letters. She wasn’t sure if the High Priest could read, or if he could read English. He had explained to her that part of being the Chosen One meant that everyone could understand her and she could understand everyone else. She had been skeptical of that at the time.
“So,” she said, “we might be speaking the same language and not know it.”
“Well,” he allowed. “I suppose, but that wouldn’t make very much sense, now would it. How could we have the same language in different worlds?”
“What’s two plus two?” she asked.
“Four,” he said, “but what’s that got—”
“We have the same math. Maybe we speak the same language, too.”
They agreed to drop the subject, but she wondered about it now. If she wrote, “Be right back,” in English, would he be able to understand it, given that she was, after all, the Chosen One? She had no idea, but she figured she’d try anyway.
When she got home, the card was undisturbed and the door was closed. The High Priests still hadn’t come.
That night, after spending two hours trying to get the kids to stay in bed and then falling heavily asleep on the couch without washing her face or brushing her teeth, she dreamed of the Land of Nibiru again. It had been years since she had done so. She couldn’t remember the last time. In her dream, she was back in the Resistance camp at the banks of the Iygath River. They had suffered several losses in the battle the night before, and had used the thick forests leading toward the Iygath as cover during their retreat. The Zonnier Hordes, being as they were from the high Zoni plains, where trees were as rare as skyscrapers—which was to say, nonexistent—were afraid of the forest. They quaked in fear every time they went too close.
The forest was safe for now. It was only a matter of time, though, before the Zonnier Hordes enlarged their collective courage enough to swallow their fear, approach the forest, and light it on fire.
Nothing gave the Resistance more worry than the possibility of fire. The trees were their greatest defenders, but could be transformed into weapons easily enough. Every day they prayed for rain.
But for now, the Resistance was focused on filling hungry bellies and nursing wounds. This was one of the first battles that Corrina herself had fought in, and it was the very first time that she had held her sword in the way that she had been taught, allowing herself to hook the blade right under the chin of the Zonnier and then snap her elbows straight, whipping them in front of her body in a wide arc, neatly removing the Zonnier’s head from its shoulders. The High Priests instructed her to examine the body after she had done so, that she might be able to watch the twisted soul of the Zonnier wiggle from the open neck and extend its nine legs and three mouths to the sky before shuddering once and expiring on the ground. They had described the process in sickening detail, giving Corrina nightmares for over a week, and she had no interest in seeing it as described.
It was a mistake, as it turned out. One of the Zonnier souls was wearing the circlet that was destined to rest on the head of the Chosen One. And, according to the High Priests’ various ministrations, that soul emerged in the most recent battle. And then it was lost. Every other warrior carefully examined the souls as they emerged from the bloody neck stumps of the slain.
“Except you, Corrina,” the High Priest said. “I mean Princess,” he amended quickly, though it seemed to Corrina that he did not mean it.
“I’m sorry,” she said for the hundredth time. “I just couldn’t do it.”
“Not couldn’t,” the High Priest said. “Didn’t. There is a difference, you know.”
In her dream, she was no longer eleven. And the High Priest’s voice sounded suspiciously like her father’s.
“It’s not my fault!” She said in her grown-up voice.
“Of course it is!” the High Priest said. “But it is understandable. It was your first beheading, after all. It is unfortunate, though. Now we must find that circlet—if the Hordes haven’t found it first. And our collective task is much harder.”
Corrina stormed out.
There was a boy waiting for her outside. Cairn. He smiled broadly as he watched her approach. He didn’t seem to notice that she was older.
Corrina found this odd.
I guess this means I’m about to wake up, she thought. She resisted the idea, hoping to stay in the Land of Nibiru for as long as she could. It had been so long—so very long. And she missed it.
“Are you going somewhere?” Cairn said.
“No,” Corrina said. “Maybe. I can’t tell, actually. I’m not sure if I was here to begin with.”
“Oh, you’re here,” he assured her. “But there’s something you need to know.”
He had begun to fade at the edges. She would be awake soon.
“What?” she asked. Her throat hurt. Like she had swallowed a fishhook. Her life had not been unhappy. Far from it. It had simply been indifferent. She sometimes felt as though her life had been suspended in a jar full of formaldehyde. She was in stasis. Her year in the Land of Nibiru was the only time she was ever truly happy.
“The High Priests don’t know what they’re talking about. Remember that.”
And she woke with a start.
The door to the cupboard under the sink rattled and shook. She had a crick in her neck. Stupid couch, she thought. The door rattled again.
Her throat still hurt. She pulled her legs out from the cocoon of her cardigan and quietly placed her bare feet on the floor. She had been trained in the Noble Art of Stealth and had practiced the fundamentals of it every day since she left the Land of Nibiru. She was coiled like a spring. Very slowly, she approached the door. Very quickly, she flung it open.
No High Priest.
Just a rat.
Or she assumed it was a rat. It squeaked and darted across the kitchen floor and launched itself down the stairs leading to the basement.
“UGH!” she said. “Nasty.” She hated rats.
There were smallbeasts in the Land of Nibiru. They looked like rats, and were smart like rats, but they were far more adorable. Or at least she remembered them as being more adorable. That was surely a rat. It wasn’t adorable at all. Wasn’t it?
Her alarm blared upstairs.
“MOMMY!” Jacob shouted from his room. He was, no doubt, sitting on his bed, wide awake, minding the time. Watching the minutes tick by on his sun and moon clock until he could be reasonably allowed to trot into her room and wake her up.
“I know, honey!” she called back.
The pink edge of dawn crept into the eastern window. The cupboard rattled again. “Stupid rats,” she muttered, and went upstairs to take a shower. During her lunch break, she’d call an exterminator. If she remembered.
By the time her first week ended, she’d had seven dreams about the Land of Nibiru. Sometimes she was eleven in these dreams. Sometimes she was her proper age. Each time, she had to arrange childcare in order to go into battle.
On her fourteenth night, she dreamed that she taught Jacob to parry and jab with a wooden sword.
On her twenty-first night, she dreamt that she went riding into the center of the Zonnier Hordes with Rufus strapped to her back. Her battle cry rang in harmony with his please-nurse-me wail.
On her twenty-eighth night, she dreamt that she confronted the High Priests in front of the whole Resistance. “Your plan is stupid,” she shouted, as her children clung to her legs. “And more people will die needlessly for a war that has waged for far too long.” Rufus sobbed. “Grow up!” she shouted, though in retrospect, she was not sure if she shouted it to the High Priests or to Rufus.
“You tell ’em!” Cairn shouted, who obviously thought it was directed at the High Priests.
“You are supposed to be eleven!” the Highest of the High Priests retorted, growing very red in the face. “And you’re not supposed to have opinions. Or . . .what are those things called? The things she had to bring when she took her own sweet time getting organized to come with us?”
“Tampons, your Excellency,” said one of the lower High Priests.
“Exactly. Or brassieres. You’re not supposed to have those either. Or opinions. Did I say that already?”
“You did, your Excellency, but it is still just as apt.”
“It is not out of the ordinary to pack a brassiere,” Corrina said. “Or tampons. I had no idea how long I’d be here. I also brought a diaper bag. Does that bother you, too?”
“You brought nothing with you when you came the first time,” the High Priest huffed.
“True. But I was eleven.”
“I liked you better when you were eleven.”
“And I liked you less,” she said with a smile. “I’m terribly fond of you now.”
And then she woke up. The cupboard rattled. Her forehead itched. She got out of bed and practiced a perfect Wolf’s Feint using her fuzzy bunny slipper instead of a sword. Her muscles knew every angle. Her bones snapped surely into place.
“Mommy?” Jacob said. “What are you doing?”
“Breakfast,” Alice said.
“Breakfast,” Andrew said, not to be outdone.
And she got them ready and took them to work. The rat watched them from the top of the basement stairs. Of course it was a rat. She could see him out the corner of her eye. He had long ears that came to two sharp points. Just like the smallbeasts from Nibiru.
That night she checked under the sink. No portal. And the note was still there. Though, strangely there was a hash mark that she could not remember putting there herself.
That night she dreamed of Nibiru. Again.
A few days later, her boss came to visit her in the archives. He was an older gentleman, about the same age her father would have been, had he lived. He had wide, soft hands.
“Listen, Corrina,” he said. “We have an issue to discuss.”
Her heart sank. She thought of the cupboard under the sink and her husband’s truck driving away. People leave and they do not come back, she thought. “Are you going to fire me?” she said.
“What?” He was truly surprised. “No! Of course not. Everyone says that you’ve integrated yourself into our daily operations beautifully and no one can imagine what we’d ever do without you.”
She relaxed. At least that.
“Listen, did you drive today?” Her boss’s voice was deep, serious. He had a face full of concern.
“No,” she said. “My kids and I prefer to walk.”
He nodded. “Okay then. I am going to arrange an escort for you to make sure you get home safely. There is a gentleman from the police coming to chat with you in a moment. I took the liberty of requesting a watch on your house. A man came in today, asking for you. And then he wanted to see your children. And then he threatened to slay any that stand in his way.”
“Slay?” Corrina said. “He used the word slay?”
“Does that mean anything to you?”
“No,” she said, her face was blank. “Not at all.”
“The thing is, he was armed.”
“A gun? My god.”
“No,” her boss said. “Even weirder. A sword. Randal and Julia from accounting jumped him when he wasn’t looking and got the sword away. He’s in police custody now. But he kept asking for you.”
“What does he look like?” Corrina asked, though she already knew.
“Old guy,” her boss said. “Weird clothes. With a long gray beard.”
After chatting with the police and being escorted home, she checked the cupboard under the sink. There was no door. There was no portal. It was just a coincidence. She couldn’t even find any evidence of the rat.
The High Priests hadn’t come. They would never come. She wasn’t the Chosen One. There was no Nibiru.
On the forty-ninth night she dreamed of Nibiru again. Seven times seven nights of dreams. It felt significant. In her dream her feet were bare and she was walking across a berry patch. With each step, the berries swelled and burst, inking her feet with juice. From time to time she’d reach down and slide her hands along the stalks, pulling berries into the cups of her palms, and pouring them into her mouth.
“Don’t eat all of them,” a voice said. Cairn. She’d know him anywhere.
“I’m glad to see you,” she said.
“Of course you are,” Cairn said. “I’m amazing.” She took his hand. She was eleven. She walked. She was twenty-two. She looked at him. She was eleven. She turned away. She was twenty-two.
They came to the edge of a ridge. Down below was a valley. The Resistance was there. They were tired and cold and bedraggled. Their children were hungry. Beyond, past the edge of the Forest, the Zonnier Hordes nursed their wounds. They were tired and cold and bedraggled. Their children were hungry. Corrina opened her eyes wide.
“They have nowhere to go,” she said. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t known it before.
Cairn shook his head. “The High Priests told the King to poison the land on the Zoni plains. Some kind of magic. The animals died and the water is bad and the grasses withered and the crops killed anyone who ate them. It was a total disaster. They came here looking for refuge, and their presence was mistaken for war. Unfortunately, they are very good at war.”
Corrina dug her hands into her pockets. “Assuming I am the Chosen One,” she said slowly.
“You’re probably still the Chosen One,” Cairn said.
“Well. I’m not admitting that I am.”
“Don’t you read stories?” Cairn said, exasperated. “If you doubt you’re the Chosen One, it pretty much proves that you are.”
Corrina waved him off. “If I am, it means I have the gift of languages, right? That’s like, one of the things. Which means I can talk to both sides. I could negotiate a peace.”
Cairn was silent.
“They killed my parents, you know. Slaughtered them where they stood.” He wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands. He was still a boy, after all. He had not grown up.
“You killed many of their parents, too,” Corrina countered. “So did I. More than I wish. Maybe it’s time to be done. Farm. Rebuild. Share with each other. It’s not new stuff—people have done this before. It can work.”
“So you’re coming back?” Cairn said hopefully.
“If I can,” she said. “I’m not eleven anymore, you know. And I need to bring my kids. What’s the childcare situation?”
Cairn frowned. “What’s childcare?”
“Never mind, we’ll figure it out.”
“In any case,” Cairn said, reaching into his satchel. “You’ll need this. I found it yesterday. I haven’t showed it to the High Priests yet. I don’t trust them to do the right thing.” He handed her a gold circlet. She felt the weight of it in her hands. It hummed with its own kind of magic.
She woke up in her bed. Her feet were stained with berry juice. She was still holding the circlet.
“Well then,” Corrina said.
When the High Priests got the call, they were standing in the center of the Resistance Camp, going over the battle plans for the campaign that they hoped would spell the end of the Zonnier Hordes. It would be a bloodbath, on both ends, but they felt fairly certain that it would spell the end of things. The Resistance was balking, though.
“Cowards,” one priest muttered under his breath.
That was when the door appeared. Right there in the middle of everything.
And a voice.
“My name is Corrina,” the voice said. It came from the land, the sky, and the trees. It hummed in the bones. The Resistance fell to their knees. “And I am the one you call Chosen.”
“We are saved!” they shouted. They waved the flags with the image of the Chosen One emblazoned in their center. Someone began to sing.
The High Priests felt their spirits falter. They had hoped to bring the child back afterthe battle. They couldn’t afford her getting killed and they certainly couldn’t afford her getting battle fatigue. War is not pleasant for children. That’s why they had sent her away in the first place. Best she not see it.
“Why, Princess!” the Highest of the High Priests said. “How on Earth did you manage to open the Portal?”
The circlet, he knew. She has the circlet. But how? She had control of the Portal now. That could be a bother.
“I would like the High Priests to come through the Portal for a conference, please,” the voice said. “Just for a moment.”
The High Priests began to grumble. The Portal was tough on the knees. And one of their own had already gone through and still had not come back. What of him? These were things they wanted to say out loud, but the Resistance was watching, and they could not.
One by one, they filed into the Portal.
The Chosen One had laid out a meal. The High Priests, though they were better fed than any in the Resistance, were still in possession of bellies that occasionally knew Want—as they did now. The table was pure white and was trimmed with a metal that shone like silver. Of course the Chosen One lived like a queen in her own country. It stood to reason.
“Sit,” the Chosen One said.
She had grown up. She explained to them that time flowed differently on different sides of the Portal. Just like a stream flowing to the ocean, there were sections when the waters of time moved slowly and methodically, and there were bits when it raced down a steep, steep slope. But since the two worlds had separate streams, they did not necessarily correlate. She had no idea when they’d return to the Land of Nibiru. She hoped that, with the Portal open, the time streams would be synched for a bit.
The High Priests didn’t listen. She had laid out cold cuts and rolls and muffins and cheese. Fruit. Her mom’s famous chili recipe. Cookies. A bowl of grapes. They ate ravenously.
“I’ve left instructions for the oven, and there are several casseroles in the freezer,” she said. She had a baby on her hip. A duffel bag in her hand. The other children had backpacks on their backs.
And she wore the circlet on her head.
“Princess—” the Highest of the High Priests said with his mouth full.
“I am going to negotiate a peace,” she said, shooing her children through the Portal.
“Mommy’s coming right behind you,”she whispered to the kids. They needed no encouragement. Tunnels behind tiny doors were the funnest thing in the world. Corrina had thought the same thing when she was eleven.
“But you can’t,” the Highest Priest said. “They’re barbarians.”
“So is everyone,” she said. She eyed the Portal. Her circlet hummed. She raised her hand, and it enlarged, opening behind the sink. With a quick leap, she landed surely on the counter, her legs coiled under her body, her muscles ready to spring. Rufus squealed with delight. She kissed him on the center of his shiny bald head.
“But, Princess,” another Priest said.
“Only a week,” she said. “Then I’ll return.”
“May the gods protect you while I am gone,” she said with a grin. And she slid into the black, and closed the Portal behind.
For the last thousand years, in the Land of Nibiru, they have told the story of the Mother Queen, and the Band of Saints that went into the Black to return her to her throne, so that she might bring healing to the land. And she did come back, and she did heal the land. The Zoni and the Nibu joined hands and hearts and homelands and lives, and a thousand years of peace followed her return to her people. The Saints succeeded, but did so at a terrible cost. The Portal closed and it never re-opened. Every year, both Zoni and Nibu returned to where the Portal last opened to light incense and sing songs and say prayers of thanksgiving.
And year after year, they never came back.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Barnhill writes short stories for grown-ups and novels for children. Her short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Sun, Tor.com, Postscripts and other journals, and several anthologies. Her novels, The Mostly True Story of Jack, Iron Hearted Violet, and The Witch’s Boy, have garnered several starred reviews. She has received the Parent’s Choice Gold Award, and has been a finalist for the Andre Norton Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Recently, she received a McKnight Foundation Artist Fellowship in Children’s Literature. Her novella “The Unlicensed Magician” won the 2016 World Fantasy Award. Her middle-grade novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, won the Newbery Medal and an animated movie based on it is in development.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the February 2017 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Bruce Sterling, Ian R. MacLeod, K.J. Bishop, A. Merc Rustad, Ashok Banker, Seanan McGuire, Brian Stableford, Jack Skillingstead, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.