Chapter Two of this story, in which Buffy has been accepted into the Five Trees camp, and Hiywan is trying to find a way to communicate with her that's better than sign language...
Characters: Hiywan (the First Slayer before she became a Slayer), Buffy. See here for a glossary of original characters.
Wordcount: 21,642. This chapter 4666
Rating: 15 (R) (Non-explicit references to sex, nudity, animal deaths, various bodily functions, nature being red in tooth and claw, etc.)
Previous chapter: One
We made our way across the campsite, which was full of people since the women had already returned from their day's gathering, and the men wouldn't leave on their next big hunting expedition for another couple of days. The mood seemed oddly subdued. Normally I'd expect at least a dozen people to greet me: ask how my hunting went, make a joke, ask my advice, offer to have sex with me, whatever. But now they seemed to be avoiding us; though I could sense dozens of pairs of eyes watching us as we threaded our way through the huts.
I couldn't really blame them; it had been months since the last strangers were seen in the camp, and none of them had had such a bizarre appearance as Buffy. Still, it made me uncomfortable; she was our guest, officially welcomed and given clan-right, and they shouldn't treat her like a... a nightwalker or something. But she didn't seem to notice the stares - or maybe she was just better than me at feigning indifference to them - and instead she was gazing around in open fascination.
I wondered what she was looking at; it all seemed perfectly familiar to me. But she came from far away; maybe her people's camps looked different to ours? Maybe they lived in caves all the time, instead of just once or twice a year like we did. That might be why she was so pale. Or - I tried to imagine the most exotic thing I could - perhaps they made shelters of animal skins stretched on poles, or out of that peculiar material her clothes were made from? It was frustrating not being able to talk to her; I had so many questions I wanted to ask!
I ducked to avoid an awning someone had stretched between two of the trees that grew between the huts. We'd only been at this site a week or so, but already it was beginning to look like home again. It was about three years since we'd last been here, and the jungle was always quick to reclaim its own as soon as we left, and had to be fought back when we moved back in. We'd cleared out one of the huts straight away to sleep in, of course. It was horribly cramped, but better than nothing. Some of the men were supposed to be clearing out a second shelter; I was looking forward to it because I hate sleeping in a heap; there's always someone elbowing you in the side or snoring right in your ear, and another shelter would give us room to spread out. But annoyingly enough, as we walked past I saw the whole bunch of them relaxing on the floor of the shelter-pit, enjoying the shade with the building totally unfinished. It didn't have a roof or anything!
I couldn't help myself; I stood on the edge of the shelter and stared down at them witheringly, making a sarcastic comment pitying them for being so exhausted, since they'd obviously worked so hard all day. They didn't react with any particular guilt, more's the pity - though I didn't really expect them to. One of them did invite me to come and help them dig out the pit and rebuild the walls, if it was so important to me.
I grinned. "No way! Digging is men's work, you know that."
"So's hunting, but you seem happy enough to do it."
"Of course! Hunting takes skill. Digging only needs brute force and ignorance."
"Why-- come here and I'll show you some brute force!"
He pretended to lunge to his feet. I giggled and feigned panic, backing away hastily. Of course the idea that he would really attack me didn't even cross my mind; such things were unheard of within the clan, although strangers were more of a risk. That made me think of Buffy again, and I wondered what she made of the banter. I worried suddenly that she might take it seriously; she couldn't understand our words so maybe it looked worse than it really was? But when I turned back to her, she didn't look alarmed or anything.
Well actually, she did look kind of impatient and maybe a little exasperated. Oops. We'd better get to Grandmother quickly.
I did stop off once more, in fact, to put down my spear. It wasn't the sort of thing you were supposed to carry around the campsite, after all - but I didn't like leaving it just anywhere. So I took us around to the old shelter where we were storing our things - it had some hides stretched over the top to protect it from the sun, but no proper roof, and various bundles and packages were stacked up neatly on the floor. My own leather bag, the one I use to carry my stuff when we trek from one campsite to the next, was there; and I wrapped the strap around the shaft of my spear before propping it carefully against the wall. Not that anyone would deliberately take it, of course, but I didn't like the idea of someone going off with it even accidentally instead of their own spear. Then I scrambled up out of the waist-deep pit and led the way onwards.
We reached the central clearing where the campfire is set, and lots of people were bustling around preparing the evening meal. One of them directed me to a tall tree overlooking the stream, and there in its shade I found Grandmother Heran at last.
Only problem was, she was fast asleep, stretched out comfortably on the grass. I hesitated, looked doubtfully at Buffy. Should I wake her? I said her name hesitantly, then again a little louder. No response.
I just knew my new companion was getting impatient. I knelt down, then cautiously reached out my hand to shake Heran's shoulder.
Before I could even touch her, her own hand shot out like a snake. She gripped my wrist tightly, far more strength in her hand than its fragile appearance would suggest. Her eyes snapped open.
"Try to wake an old lady, would you? Shame on you."
"Uh, how did you know I was there, Grandmother?"
"How? I heard you clomping over the ground like a herd of elephants."
I thought about this. "But if you heard me coming, that means you were already awake, doesn't it?"
She barked out a sharp laugh. "You know, there's such a thing as being too clever for your own good, girl."
I grinned, settled myself into a more comfortable cross-legged position. "Grandmother, I've brought someone to meet you. She's, uh--- well, see for yourself."
Heran quirked an eyebrow, then looked behind me to where Buffy was standing and watching us. Her eyes widened a little, but that was the only sign of surprise she gave. She beckoned our guest to sit down beside her, then asked me to help her into a more upright position.
"Well then. Who are you? Or should I say, what are you?"
Buffy made an unintelligible reply, and I added helpfully, "She doesn't speak our language."
"I can see that, thank you Hiywan. Have you tried speaking to her in the Five Demon Tongues?"
"Um, I don't.. I mean, I can't..."
"Off gallivanting chasing antelopes - or chasing men, more likely - instead of attending to your lessons? You'll never be a proper Guardian if you don't learn the lore."
"Yes, Grandmother. Sorry, Grandmother."
"Hmph. Very well. " She turned to Buffy, and then out of her mouth came a sequence of clicks, grunts and growls that I couldn't make head nor tail of. Buffy looked as blank as me, and then Grandmother said something else, which sounded different but equally bizarre. No response.
Then on the fourth attempt Buffy's eyes lit up and she practically bounced in the air with delight... then just as quickly deflated like a bladder that's been hit by a flint. She said something to Grandmother that sounded, to my ears, very much like what Heran had asked her: the same kind of muffled growly noises. Grandmother looked puzzled, even a little annoyed, and said something back to her challengingly. Buffy spread her arms helplessly, repeating the same phrase as before. Then she added some more words, and to my utter surprise Grandmother burst out laughing. Even Buffy chuckled too, rather ruefully, but Grandmother was practically rolling on the ground.
I felt annoyed at being left out, and demanded to know what they'd said. Eventually Grandmother got herself under control with a muttered, "The poor girl. I wonder who taught her that?" Then she pulled herself up again and spoke to me.
"I asked her if she spoke the tongue of the Fyarl demons. She replied to me in perfect, fluent Fyarl - but what she said was, 'I'm sorry, I don't speak Fyarl.'"
"What? That doesn't make sense."
"Then she said a few more things. In fact, she said, 'Is there anything to drink in this place?' and then 'Do you have a more attractive sister?' and finally 'Go away or I'll pull your head off.'"
I stared in astonishment, then burst out laughing myself. Buffy's face did that thing where it turned bright red again. Grandmother shook her head.
"I think whoever taught her those phrases had a bizarre sense of humour. Or a very straightforward set of priorities. I wonder if she even knows what she was saying to me, or what she thought the words meant?"
I cocked my head, considering. Buffy didn't seem like the sort of person to be fooled so easily, and certainly that last phrase would come in handy. But more important was my triumphant realisation:
"But she understood you! She can talk properly after all, like a person! We just have to find out what language she does speak. Can you cast a spell? Or summon a spirit?"
She thought for a moment, then said, "No." I blinked, then looked despondent. (Or possibly rebellious. Other people tell me I often look that way.)
Heran sighed. "Why is it so important to you to speak with her? I think you'd better tell me the full story."
And so I did, with special emphasis on the way Buffy appeared out of thin air, and her knowledge of Guardian secrets like the sign of Tsehay, and above all the fact that she appeared to be as strong and fast as someone under the Great Possession - or possibly even stronger - but was fully in control of herself and acting completely naturally. Well, as natural as a weird pink-skinned, yellow-haired and incomprehensibly-babbling woman, dressed in unearthly shades of red and blue could act, at least.
When I'd finished Heran looked thoughtful for a long moment, then sighed. "It does sound important. Well, I can't help her myself, but I expect Senayit can. We'll need to contact her. Help me up."
I supported her as she rose to her feet, hiding my concern as she did. Grandmother had been exactly the same all my life - from what Mother said, she'd been old even when Mother was a girl - but recently she seemed to be slowing down a little, and needing a little more help even with day-to-day activities. She hid it well - I was the only person she allowed to assist her - but still it frightened me. Death was something we all lived with, of course, but usually it came quickly, in screams and blood, or coughing or the pains of hunger. The idea that a person could just gradually slow down, wither away, come to a stop - it seemed unnatural. The world shouldn't work that way - I didn't want it to. I--
Grandmother's grip on my elbow shocked me out of my spiral of worry.
"Stop flower-gathering, girl. Go and fetch a bowl of water from the stream. I'll ask Ariam if we can use the Fire Hut."
She made her way off determinedly, seemingly as energetic as ever. Buffy watched her go, uncertain whether to follow, but I beckoned her to come with me down to the stream.
All our campsites are built next to water, of course. The stream - it was actually more of a small river, although not big enough to be home to crocodiles, thankfully - provided fresh water to drink, cook with, and clean. The banks were also soft with clay, which we could make into pots. That was a job often given to children to keep them busy; they enjoyed playing around with the squishy clay, and if the bowls and dishes they produced were often lumpy and misshappen, it didn't really matter. It wasn't as if they'd be used many times before they broke and got thrown away anyway, and we always needed more.
There were a few kids splashing around at the edge of the stream when I got there, under the omnipresent eyes of a parent. My sister was among them, and I was pleased to see that when the other children shrank back in fear at the sight of Buffy, she stood her ground bravely.
"Hello, Haset. What are you doing?"
She looked down, too shy to speak. Her hand clutched tightly around the doll Aunt Samwarit had made for her. It was a simple thing, two pieces of wood tied together crosswise with a grass-stuffed leather ball for a head; but recently Nataye had painted a face on the front of it, with eyes and a mouth and a nose and everything, and since then Haset had hardly put it down for a moment.
"Have you been giving Desta a bath?"
Desta was the doll. Haset giggled, and then found her voice to scold me.
"Silly! Desta doesn't like water. You know it makes her head soggy."
"Oh! Well, nobody wants a soggy head. You'd better come out of there."
She hesitated, but then splashed out of the stream towards us. Her eyes were huge as she looked up at Buffy, but at least she wasn't running away. I seized the moment.
"Haset, this is Buffy. She's our new friend. Say hello to her."
More shyness. Buffy looked a little nervous too, like she wasn't used to dealing with small children, as incredible as that sounds. Coaxing Haset to speak wasn't working, so I took another approach.
"Well, what about Desta? She can say hello to Buffy. She's brave."
"I'm brave too!" said my sister indignantly. Then she turned to my companion and piped up, "Hello, Buffy!"
"Uh, hello, Haset."
I was so delighted at getting Haset to speak to Buffy that it took a moment to realise that the newcomer had answered in our own language! Well okay, so she only knew the word "hello" so far, but it was a start! I grinned at her in triumph. Buffy smiled back, shrugging her shoulders as she did and saying something else. I didn't understand it, of course, but I choose to believe she said, "Hey, it's a start!"
But we had a job to do. I asked Haset to show us the pots they'd made today. She took us over to the rock where they were laid out in the sun to dry and harden and proudly pointed out the two she'd made herself. Unfortunately they were too small for my purposes, but I assured her we'd use them for dinner - but now I needed a big dish for Grandmother Heran. She immediately toddled off to grab the biggest pot there for me, and I hastily retrieved it from her before she could break it. The larger vessels are usually also the most fragile.
Then I filled it with water from the stream and turned to carry it carefully back to the camp. Buffy followed me, and Haset skipped along beside us babbling to herself. I was amused when I realised she was actually telling her doll not to be afraid of Buffy, that Buffy was a friend even though she looked all funny. Then she came up next to Buffy and slipped her small hand into the other woman's own. Buffy looked startled - in fact for a moment, I'd even swear she was terrified - but then she smiled and slowed her pace to match Haset's smaller strides, and together the three of us got back to the centre of the camp. I hadn't spilt a drop.
Mekde was waiting outside the Fire Hut. She's Ariam's daughter, and almost as bossy as her mother. Everyone says she'll be headwoman herself one day, but Ariam's strict with her and makes sure she works hard. Looking after the Fire Hut is her special responsibility; the hearth inside it is the spiritual heart of the clan, and it must never be allowed to grow cold. Nobody is allowed inside it, either, unless they have the headwoman's permission. But Mekde scowled at me, then jerked her head backwards.
"Go in. Mother says you can. Grandmother's already in there."
I hesitated, looking around at Buffy.
"Yes, her too. Make sure she doesn't touch anything she shouldn't."
"Um, all right." I bit back anything else I might have added; getting into an argument with Mekde could spoil your whole day. Instead I knelt down carefully, trying not to spill any water, and laid the bowl down. Rather to my surprise Mekde helpfully pulled aside the leather curtain that covered the entrance and held it open for me. Wisps of smoke filtered through and into the daylight. After pausing to urge Haset to run off and play - and not get into trouble - I crawled through the narrow opening and down to the floor. Then I turned around to take the bowl, beckoning to Buffy to follow.
The room inside was small and dark, barely large enough for the three of us to sit around the firepit in the centre of the floor. The smoke made my eyes water, and I heard Buffy go into a fit of coughing as she followed me in. Then she gasped and rocked back as she saw the mask of Tsehay hanging on the wall behind the fire. As the leather curtain fell back the only light in the room was from the flickering yellow flames, and they made Tsehay's face look looming and ominous and almost alive. This was his sacred place. Unlike the other huts and shelters, green leaves or branches were never used to construct the Fire Hut's roof; only the hides of animals killed by the clan's warriors in Tsehay's name. His power entered into the leather, turning it almost as dark as human skin but also filling it with a little of his warmth, so when the rainy season came the leather retained its soft and supple nature instead of turning stiff and dead. At that time we stripped the roof, with many prayers of thanks, and replaced it with new hides while we made clothing from the old.
Heran was absent-mindedly tending the fire with small twigs from the pile in the corner, until I tried to put the bowl in front of her. She shook her head firmly. "No. You do it; it's a skill you need to master."
"Err, all right." I swallowed nervously, then took a deep breath. "Do you have the abeba petals?"
She took a small pouch from inside her wrap and silently passed it to me. I untied the thong that secured it, tipped out a small amount of the scrunchy brown dust inside into the palm of my hand, then passed her back the bag. She watched me intently, but silently, as I made sure I remembered the words of the ritual correctly.
Then I sprinkled the powder onto the surface of the water and chanted the spell. Nothing happened for a moment and I was sure I'd got it wrong; but then the dust started to spread itself in a spiral pattern and steam rose. I said the second part of the ritual, and invoked the name of Senayit of the Shining Moonlight clan. The water started to glow from within - bright enough that as I glanced up I could clearly see Buffy watching me intently, both surprised and expectant.
Then the light faded a little, and I saw the face of a motherly-looking woman gazing out at me. I recognised her; I'd spent six months with the Shining Moonlight clan last year as part of my training. I'd never have the talent for magic that she had - a few rote-learned spells were about my limit - but she'd taught me what she could with far more patience than Kelile, who'd instructed me in fighting skills. Kelile had never ceased criticising me for my laziness, lack of grace and insufficient application to hard work - which, since by the end of her training I could even beat Haymanot in four fights out of five, I thought was most unfair.
But I was letting myself get distracted. I gave Senayit the traditional greeting, and felt her words form in my head as she replied. Most Guardians talk normally when we far-speak each other, but Senayit prefers to use mindspeech when other people contact her. As she explained it to me one day with a laugh, a Guardian who seems to fall into a trance in the middle of her work will merely be thought to be attuning herself to the higher powers, but one who starts talking to invisible friends will be judged insane.
I started to explain what we needed, then Grandmother took over and began discussing technical details of spells and spirit bargains with Senayit. After that, Senayit asked to see Buffy for herself, and so we all squeezed around and Buffy peered over my shoulder into the bowl. If she was surprised to see the tiny image of the other woman there - a woman who was more than six weeks' walk away from us, but able to talk as if she were in the same room - she gave no sign of it.
But then Buffy's whole body went rigid, and I could feel her heart pounding in her chest as she leaned forward against me to get closer to the water. Senayit gasped, her eyes went wide, then she flung up her hand and turned away in haste. Buffy sank back, breathing heavily.
"What happened? Senayit, what did you hear?"
"She's... Great Spirit, what is she? What have you brought among us?"
"Is she dangerous?" snapped out Grandmother, in her most decisive voice.
"No... yes.. I don't..." Senayit covered her face with her hands. "She's deadly dangerous. But I don't think she means us harm. She's just - I don't know *what* she is. Qasafi's power lies heavy on her, stronger than I've ever felt it from anyone. Even in you, Hiywan. She's a sister to us, I have no doubt of that. But the Feared One lies coiled around her heart like a vine, even now, even as she sits there so calmly. I don't understand it. It frightens me. She frightens me."
"What should we do?" demanded Grandmother, but at the same time I said, "What does she need?"
Senayit breathed deeply. "I don't... I was only able to touch her mind for a moment. She needs something; she needs our help. Not for her alone; I think she's here to save something greater than herself. Perhaps the world itself. And... she wants to atone?" She shook her head. "I'm not sure. It was all so fast. But she's definitely come here for something, and..." she squinted at me, "I got the definite impression it's connected with you somehow, Hiywan. I don't think it's an accident that she appeared right next to you."
Well, that was reassuring, in the sense that it wasn't reassuring one little bit. "Are you sure you can't speak to her again, find out more?"
"Absolutely not. Not mind-to-mind. There's a danger there; like quicksand, sucking you in and never letting you free again. I can't risk it. But normal human speech, with lips and tongue; that would be safe enough. Then we can talk to her."
"You can do that? You can teach her our language?"
"Something like that. I can call a spirit that will listen to your words and whisper them in her ear in a tongue she can understand, then take her words and change them into our own speech. You'll be able to talk then."
"Thank you! That's so helpful. Can you do it now?"
She chuckled ruefully. "Hiywan, sister, I'm in no shape to cast magic right now. My hands are still shaking! And I'll need time to collect the right ingredients, and summon the spirits to hear my words. Tonight, under the light of the moon, as befits our clan totem. I'll cast the spell then. When she wakes tomorrow morning, you'll understand her words."
"But--" Grandmother poked me sharply in the ribs. "Uh - thank you, sister. Tomorrow will be great. Thank you."
Senayit smiled - I'm pretty sure she guessed what Heran just did to me - and then bade me farewell. The light in the bowl faded slowly, and once more the room was lit only by pale yellow firelight. Buffy's face seemed to loom out of the darkness like the opposite of a shadow.
"So, that's it. Tomorrow. We have to wait until tomorrow. It's not even anywhere close to sunset yet! Almost a whole day..."
"Half a day," said Heran reprovingly, "And you'll be asleep for most of it. Learn some patience, girl. Our sister Senayit knows that casting magic without proper rest and preparation is something only fools would try. You're not a fool; don't act like one."
"Yes, Grandmother." I sighed dramatically, but she'd turned back to the fire and was putting more twigs on it. I'm sure she was ignoring me deliberately.
So with nothing else to do I crawled back out through the doorway and blinked dazedly at the sudden sunlight. Buffy followed me out and looked at me expectantly, asking me something. I shook my head: how to explain?
I stood in front of her, touched my lips, then reached out towards the side of her head. She dodged away automatically, making me sigh and roll my eyes then repeat the gesture. This time she stood still, with a faint air of "Let's humour the crazy woman" about her, and so I was able to touch her ear. Then I touched my finger to her lips, and pressed it against my own ear in turn. Buffy suddenly stared at me intently, as I waved my hands in a complex pattern then flung them apart, then touched my ear and mouth again and smiled. She nodded eagerly, clearly understanding my meaning (I hoped) and asking an urgent question which I assume was "When?" (or possibly, "How?).
At this I grimaced - not bothering to hide my own frustration. I pointed up in the sky and made a circle over my head with my thumb and forefinger. As Buffy looked at it, I pointed to the circle, then up at the sun, then moved my hand in a semicircular arc down to the ground. Then I mimed the same circle rising up from the opposite direction in a matching arc, until it was over my head again. She frowned for a moment, then said something to me in a questioning tone. She sounded not exactly happy about it - matching my own mood - but then she repeated the word in a much more resigned tone of voice. She shrugged, and gave a rueful smile, and said something rather longer to me. I caught my own name in there, but not, of course, the rest of her meaning. I got the gist, though:
Nothing to do about it, so let's make the best of things...