Here's the long-awaited (by about three people, but that counts...) fifth chapter of Hiywan's Story, the autobiography of the First Slayer.
Rating 12; 3,790 words. Previous chapter here. Part 1 here.
The story so far:
Hiywan and her clan have moved back to Five Trees, their sacred place. While clearing out the caverns a group of hunters encountered a monstrous beast that tore one of them apart, but Hiywan was able to kill it when it tripped and fell, giving her a moment's opportunity. As a reward, the dead man's brother gave her his spear, over the angry protests of the chieftain Belaye who objected to a girl being given a man's weapon. But then news came that a vast horde of strangers was approaching the camp. Quickly organising everybody able to bear a weapon together, Belaye ordered the non-fighters to hide in the cave. Hiywan, to her terror and delight, found herself grouped among the warriors.
Now read on...
Silence spread through our ranks as we watched the strangers approach, their feet kicking up dust as they spread out opposite us across the stream. Belaye stepped forward to meet them, and for all I begrudged his rigid views I felt a stir of pride in our chieftain then. To face such numbers without flinching! He stood at the water's edge, called out his challenge, and the two leaders of the strangers strode out to meet him.
They named themselves chieftains of the Red Earth and Lion's Tooth clans, reciting their names and heritage, and demanded to know with whom they were dealing. Belaye replied in his turn, speaking proudly of the bravery and strength of the people of the Five Trees. I could sense the men around me relaxing slightly at the familiar words and lack of hostile actions, although nobody put down his spear or turned his back on the newcomers just yet.
They were replying now, boasting of their own clans' mighty deeds, and every now and then the warriors behind them would wave their spears and shout and cheer in support. So of course Belaye had to make another longer speech of his own, and all our men yelled and stamped their feet and clashed their axes and spears together, trying to make even more noise than the huge crowd of strangers. I joined in too, not wanting to let down my clan, but I couldn't help thinking that it was all a bit silly. If these people were enemies we should be attacking them; and if they were friends, what was the point of posturing and shouting like children? My mind wandered; I only half-listened to the chieftains' speeches and instead ran my eyes along the ranks of strangers in curious interest.
They didn't look much different to our own people, to be honest. Same size, same number of arms and legs. None of them had tails, none of them seemed to be breathing fire. Some of them had odd red smears on their chests and faces, and after a moment I realised those must be the Red Earth clan. I wondered what the Lion's Tooth people did to mark out their men – surely they didn't gather actual lions' teeth? That would be recklessly brave. Unless they found an old lion separated from his pride, perhaps. Maybe you could trap one; dig a pit, use a dead zebra for bait? It was an interesting challenge – I got so caught up working out the details that I almost missed my cue next time we all had to yell and wave to prove how tough we were to the warriors opposite.
I wondered if any of the strangers were as bored as I was. They all seemed to be watching their chieftains respectfully, when they weren't doing their own yelling. I did notice one young man, taller than his companions, who seemed especially enthusiastic when he shouted and stamped. His long hair wasn't braided like the others around him, and swung around his face as he shook his spear. I suddenly imagined myself running my hand through that hair, pushing it gently back from his face and tangling my fingers in its knots. An unfamiliar warmth kindled within me. It was frightening and confusing, and I looked away from him hastily, searching for distraction.
It didn't work. I wanted to look back at him, and I didn't know why. A rogue memory came to me: Father was a child of the Red Earth clan before he married Mother. Had she stood here in my place before I was born, watching some different strangers with the same fear and need as me? I felt my face heat, wondered if my embarrassment was as obvious to those around me as I felt it should be.
I gave in. I sneaked another look at him, admiring the flow of his muscles as he brandished his spear, then almost collapsed back in panic as he turned his head in my direction. He mustn't see me! I looked away quickly, pretending to be studying the ranks of strangers each in their turn. Assessing a potential enemy, as a good warrior should.
Then one of them really did look straight back at me. Eyes caught and held my own, and an eyebrow lifted in recognition. I felt pinned and helpless, sure all my secrets were discovered. But shame kindled defiance, and I clung to my anger desperately to give me strength. I stared back at the stranger in challenge… then blinked in utter shock.
The stranger was a woman.
Standing there amongst a crowd of eight hands of men as though she had every right in the world to be there, holding a man's spear with a casual yet practiced grip. Which, of course, was pretty much what I was doing myself… but there were special circumstances in my case! I'd had to prove myself, fight, even stand up to the chieftain in front of the rest of the clan! I'd earned my place; what had she done? She was smiling over at me, and when she was sure I was looking she even winked at me! I fought down a surge of irrational rage. Who did she think she was? She didn't look that much older than me, and she was tiny compared to the men standing around her.
She must be some sort of mascot or something. I'd heard stories of ancestral heroes who found wolf cubs, raised them as part of their own family, and the fully-grown wolves had followed their masters around tamely and obediently. Most of the other children thought that was wonderful, and dreamed of having a pet wolf of their own to protect them and attack their enemies. I'd always thought it sounded cruel; my sympathies were with the wolf. To lose your freedom; to be forced to kill at the command of a master? Was that what this woman was? A tame wolf?
The other clans were shouting and waving their weapons again, and the strange woman joined in; but I could see a sardonic grin on her face. She met my gaze again, glanced at the men around her, and rolled her eyes ironically. I felt a matching grin touching my own lips, feeling myself for that moment in complete sympathy with the stranger, all hostility forgotten. I raised my own spear back at her in a knowing salute.
But then the interminable speeches were finally over, and the serried ranks broke up into individual knots of people, stepping forward to meet each other over the flowing stream. Many of my clanmates shouted cheery greetings to the warriors opposite, exactly as if we hadn't spent the last hour waving weapons and threatening to kill each other. It suddenly struck me that if Father had once belonged to the Red Earth clan, he must have family among them; cousins, maybe even sisters I'd never seen. I scanned their faces, curious to see if they were familiar, wondering if I would recognise my father's old family by sight. There were people everywhere, more than I'd ever seen in my life. Too many unfamiliar faces started to blur into each other. My head buzzed with confusion, the sound of a hundred voices chattering loudly filled my ears. It was too much.
I slipped away, heading back to the campsite. Ariam was in charge there, organising the pregnant and nursing mothers and the old folk to prepare the clan's midday meal. She looked a little surprised to see me, but wordlessly handed me a clay pot full of wild grass seeds and a grinding stone. I settled into the familiar routine comfortably, glad of the calm.
"So this is where you've got to!"
The unfamiliar voice made me jump, almost spilling the precious grain. I looked up, met the eyes of the strange woman from before. She was leaning comfortably on her spear, head cocked on one side as she regarded me.
"They've got you grinding seeds? That's no job for a warrior."
"I'm doing it because I want to! They can't tell me what to do – and neither can you!"
"Hey! Easy, girl." She laughed, her eyes dancing. "I'm just saying. I wouldn't do that, so why should you? Damn right nobody tells us what to do." A sly grin crept over her lips. "Unless we let them, of course."
"What are you talking about? Who's 'us'? And who are you, anyway?"
"Don't you know? I'm Haymanot, of course, of the Lion's Tooth clan. And I assume you must be the Five Trees' Guardian. Aren't you a bit young for the job?"
"The what?" I knew the word, of course, but this odd woman said it as if it were some sort of title. "You're not making any sense. What are you doing here anyway? Shouldn't you be with the rest of your clan?"
"I was hungry. I smelled cooking. And you know what they all say."
"No, I don't know. You're as bad as everyone else! Nobody ever gives me a straight answer to any of my questions!"
The other woman laughed at that, but then suddenly she put her hand over her mouth in shock and looked at me really oddly. "Hey. How old are you?"
"What? What's that got to do-"
But before I could finish she dropped her spear, grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled down the front of my wrap. I was paralysed in shock as she stared at my chest. I knew I was changing in that area – and I really hoped I'd continue to change, because I'd feel really cheated if it stopped now – but this was beyond rude. Then I realised she wasn't looking at my breasts at all, but at something just above them. But what?
She stared at me for a moment, then dropped her hands as if I burned her and turned away from me. She said something harsh and violent that I didn't understand, but seemed to express her feelings perfectly.
"What's wrong?" I pulled my wrap tight again, too puzzled to be upset.
"Damn it. Forget I spoke to you. Forget everything I said."
"But I don't understand anything of what you said! Who are you? What's a Guardian?"
"None of your business. I was just fooled by you having that spear and all. What's a kid doing with a weapon like that anyway?"
Now it was my turn to be shocked and angry. I was in her face, practically spitting in my rage.
"It was a bloodgift! I killed a demon that had just slain one of our best warriors! And was about to kill all the women and children! If I hadn't killed it myself first, single handed! So don't call me a kid, because I bet you've never done anything like that!"
"Yeah? You don't know what I've done. And I can't tell you. Kid."
This was too much. I screamed "Don't call me that!" and swung at her face. But somehow she caught my fist and twisted, and I found myself lying on my back staring up at the sky in breathless surprise. But she had a cocky grin on her face that I longed to wipe off, so I swung my legs around and hooked her ankles, then jerked them back. She squealed with surprise as she plummeted to the ground, then I was on top of her, fists flying as we rolled about on the earth trading insults and punches.
But then adult hands were on our shoulders, pulling us apart, and harsh voices were scolding us for our misbehaviour. I winced in pain, cradling my arm where Haymanot's nails had raked it, and looked over at her as she gingerly rubbed her swollen lip where I'd belted her in the face. We were being ordered to apologise to each other, and as I met her eyes I suddenly caught a flash of the same sardonic amusement she'd shown before at the pretensions of the older people around her. It matched my own feelings exactly, and once again I felt that weird rush of familiarity and sympathy. I found myself smiling at her – this same girl I'd been trying to beat to a pulp only moments earlier! – and said, for the benefit of my elders, "Sorry, Haymanot."
"Yeah, whatever. I'm sorry too. Hey, I don't know your name – and I can't keep calling you kid, not when you fight as well as that."
I grinned in sheer delight. "Really? I'm Hiywan. You really think I'm good?"
"You're not bad. Still not as good as me, of course, but not bad."
"Oh yeah? We can have another go if you want. Somewhere where there aren't any grown-ups to save you from me."
"Yeah, right. I think someone needs a lesson in appreciating the skills of her elders and betters. But first, can we get some food? I'm starving."
"Me too. Hey, that thing where you caught my fist? Can you teach me how to do that?"
And that was my first meeting with Haymanot of the Lion's Tooth clan. She would in time become my closest friend, my comrade-at-arms, the one person I could trust absolutely, with my very life. And then I was forced to betray her and everything she believed in. She met her death at my hands, cursing me with her final breath... but that's a story for another time.
By the time evening came the other two clans had established their own camps in several of the caves next to our own. They had brought food with them, to add to our stocks, and we built a large campfire under the shelter of the cliffs for a communal meal. Some of the men were talking about planning a joint hunt, going after an entire herd of antelope, herding them into deadfalls to slaughter them. That would provide enough meat for all three clans for an entire season, if we prepared it with the white crystals from Tsehay's stream to prevent it going bad. It sounded exciting, and I hoped I'd be allowed to join in.
The size of the crowd still bothered me a little, but I was getting more used to it, and it was certainly thrilling in its own scary way. Some of the older people were telling stories, and some of them I'd never heard before. Then after the meal there was singing, and four of the men from the Red Earth dragged a hollow log from a nearby copse, and began beating on it with sticks in an infectious rhythm. Soon a space was cleared next to the campfire, and people from all three clans were dancing together underneath the stars.
Several of the younger ones seemed to be pairing off, in a way that had always made me roll my eyes and look disgusted in the past. But now for some reason I thought of the young warrior with the long tousled hair. I imagined myself dancing with him, the ends of his locks flicking my face with their feathery touch, his strong hands around my waist. The heat was building back inside me, with a peculiar quivery fluttering in my belly that was strange but kind of nice, and I began threading my way through the crowd, eager eyes open for a sight of him.
And then I saw him. Oh, I saw him alright. Right out there on the dancefloor, moving gracefully in time to the beat from the drummers – and with his arms wrapped around another girl. She was gazing up at his face with a big stupid grin, and I instantly hated her. Really, really hated her. I wanted to kill her, drag her off him, tear her to pieces and stamp on them.
A sharp elbow poked me in the ribs, and I almost convulsed with the shock.
"Seble claims another victim, eh?"
It was Haymanot. Obviously. She nodded over towards the dancing couple, an evil grin on her face. "You've gotta wonder what they all see in him."
"But… he's got lovely arms. Haven't you seen them? And that hair…"
"Oh, Spirits, not you too. Listen, girl, you can do a lot better than him, I'm telling you."
"What do you mean?" I felt kind of outraged by her dismissiveness, but my curiosity was piqued too.
"Oh, I won't deny he's cute. Funny too, when he tries to be. But full of himself? Better believe it. Why do you think he doesn't braid his hair?"
"Why should he? I think it looks… nice. I'd kind of like to braid it for him myself."
"Well, exactly. Thank you for proving my point. You and half the other women he knows, which is exactly why he leaves it like that."
"Well, perhaps he wants to find a good wife. Why not? I mean, if I were older I'd…"
"Spare me. Seble isn't interested in getting tied down to anyone if he can help it."
"But his duty to his clan?" I felt baffled. Everybody got married. All my life, I'd understood it to be as much part of becoming an adult as getting body hair and tallness. Without new children, the clan would die!
"The only duty Seble cares about is to the thing between his legs, every chance he gets."
"What? Even with people from his own clan? That's disgusting!"
"The way I hear it, the other men from the Red Earth got together, made the chieftain tell him if he didn't get himself a wife this time, he'd find himself gutting prey every day for the rest of his life. See how many women want to go with him when he's up to his armpits in buffalo crap all the time."
Rather to my surprise, that image startled me into a horrified but delighted laugh. Once I started, I couldn't stop, and before long I'd infected Haymanot with the giggles too. We clung together, each trying to outdo the other in thinking up even more imaginative and gross punishments for him. Eventually, breathless, I wiped the tears from my eyes and looked across at Seble again, my crush well and truly cured.
Then I realised who he was dancing with. It was Esyete.
She was looking up at him adoringly, and once again I fought with the urge to rush across and drag them apart – but this time for her benefit, not my own. Haymanot looked at me questioningly, and I explained. She nodded grimly.
"I'll help you. We'll teach him not to mess around with your cousin."
I hesitated. She did look as if she was really enjoying herself. Did I have the right to take that away from her?
"Maybe we should do it differently. Do you think he'd make a good husband if he did marry Esyete?"
She shrugged. "Good as any other man, I suppose. The trick would be getting him to agree – and keep his promise."
"Well, that's where we come in. I think the two of us could explain to him – in detail, with examples – what will happen to him if he ever hurts my cousin. And what a good wife she'd make."
Haymanot grinned at me evilly, her eyes sparkling. "I like the way you think. Shall we do it tonight?"
"Give it a few days. Let's make sure they don't hate each other in the morning first before we try pushing them together."
"That's sensible. Kelile's always telling me I'm too quick to jump into a fight without thinking things out first. She'd approve of you."
"Who's Kelile? Your clan's headwoman?"
"No, she's – never mind. She's old, and wise."
"Haymanot, why won't you tell me what that word means? The thing you called me before?"
She looked uncomfortable, glanced around at the crowd.
"I can't. Really. It's taboo, a big secret. I shouldn't have told you what I did, but I assumed you were, you know. The same as me."
"You mean a warrior? I am, too!"
"No. You're still a child. You don't know."
"Know what? I don't believe you know anything! You're just making this up to make fun of me!"
She sighed unhappily, bit her lip, then seemed to come to a decision. She beckoned me with her, walking away from the crowded campfire grounds into the night.
We stopped once the sound of music and laughter was dimmed by distance. In the darkness I could hardly see her, only her eyes reflecting the pale moonlight.
"Hiywan, what I'm going to show you – you must never tell anyone about it. Ever. Promise me."
"But what are you – alright. I promise."
"Promise by your soul, in the name of Qasafi the Destroyer!"
I recoiled in horror. That was a name spoken only in whispers, and rarely at that. Normally we referred to It only as Teferi, the Feared One. It was a spirit of pure destruction, absolute and unchecked. The death that could claim even gods. Even Tsehay the Burning Warrior feared It. Our legends said that the Great Spirit kept Teferi bound in darkness, only releasing It to slay His most powerful enemies. If Teferi ever broke free, it would mark the end of the world.
And this was the spirit that Haymanot was asking me to invoke.
I gulped, my mood suddenly entirely sober. This wasn't a game anymore. Stumbling over the words, I gave Haymanot her promise.
There was a rustling, and I realised she was untying her wrap. Her form was nothing but a darker shadow in the blackness of the night, but she took my hand and guided it to her chest. I felt smooth skin and warmth, then an odd roughness. My fingers traced the outline of a raised scar, carved into her flesh directly over her heart. A short horizontal line, crossed by a longer vertical one. The symbol of Tsehay; the rays of his sunlight that gave light and heat to the world, but could also parch and burn and bring death. And Tsehay the Warrior was the patron of men; feeling his mark on someone who was very definitely a woman was… disturbing. I felt my understanding of the world shifting around me.
"What does it mean?"
She laughed, a little regretfully. "I knew you'd ask that. I'd like to tell you, Hiywan, but I can't. I swore the same oath as you just did."
"But – "
"I can tell you this, though. Someday, maybe soon, you might bear the same mark as me. Then you'll know."
I opened my mouth to ask more, but her next words drove all coherent thought from my head.
"The only problem is, you'll have to die first."
Go to Chapter Six.