Here it is, as promised; Chapter Six of Hiywan's Story, the autobiography of the First Slayer. 2553 words, rating 12.
The link to previous chapters, a list of characters and background information is here.
The story so far: Hiywan has seen a mysterious symbol scarred into the body of a young woman of another clan, and been forced to swear an oath by the most fearsome of all the spirits to keep it secret... then told that soon she might have to die. Now read on...
I have no speech. No name. I live in the action of death. The blood-cry, the penetrating wound. I am destruction. Absolute. Alone."
'Hiywan's Story' gives the First Slayer back her voice, and allows us to hear her story in her own words for the first time.
I didn't sleep well that night, my head whirling with uncomfortable new thoughts. From the sounds around me, rest wasn't the first priority to many of my clansmates either; a lot of new friendships had been made with the people of the Red Earth and Lion's Tooth that evening. I wondered what Esyete was doing; wondered if Seble really would stay behind when his clan left, become one of the Five Trees.
Then with a painful wrench I realised that maybe some of our own men would soon be finding themselves wives, leaving the clan. Assefa, Melesse, even Tilahun; all the boys I'd grown up with. Why hadn't I realised this before? I was stupid! I'd never see them again! I wanted to rush over, find them in the darkness, shake them awake, talk to them while I still could. Make the most of their company, because soon they'd be gone forever! I shook with panic, but forced myself to stay still, not make a fool of myself. I would see them again, of course. Wasn't this meeting with the two other clans proof of that? It just wouldn't be as often, that was all.
Slightly comforted, I finally drifted off to sleep. I woke late, the sun already high in the sky, but from the muttered complaints and groans from my sleeping companions I wasn't the only one. I picked my way through the huddled bodies to the cave entrance, squinted in the daylight.
I wanted to bathe, let the cool water rinse away the grogginess of sleep; but as I made my way down to the pool I'd used before I was surprised to see a group of the clan elders gathered there, along with strangers I assumed must be their equivalents from the other clans. They were deep in conversation, examining some odd-looking things they'd carried there with them, and I crept away quietly, not wanting to disturb them. In the end I stood under one of the waterfalls coming out of the cliff, delighting in the rush of cold water that raised goosebumps all over my skin then leaping out to dry off in the hot sunlight.
Feeling at a loose end, I thought about wandering over to the Lion's Tooth campsite, to see if I could find Haymanot. I wasn't quite sure what to say to her after last night, but for all her secrecy she'd still given me more information than anyone else I'd met. But then I heard my name being called, and Mother was walking towards me. She wanted to know what I'd done and where I'd been last night, and I worried, scared I'd get Haymanot into trouble. But it didn’t take long before I realised that her real worry was that I'd got involved with one of the boys from the other clan.
She'd seen Esyete and Seble together, apparently, and it seemed she knew all about Seble's reputation. I was appalled and impressed in equal measure; people Mother's age weren't supposed to understand things like that, were they? But apparently she did; and when I told her I'd decided to keep well clear of Seble, she was absurdly pleased with me. I considered telling her about some of the things Haymanot and I had dreamed up to do to him, but thought better of it. There are some things that parents are best kept ignorant of – for their own good, of course. Instead I asked her, shyly, if she'd met Father at a similar celebration to the one we had last night. She smiled fondly, and gave me a considering look.
"Are you thinking of finding a husband for yourself, Hiywan? You shouldn't rush into something like that. You're still very young, you need time to work out what you want for yourself. Make sure you're making the right decision." A brief look of sadness crossed her face. "Assuming it's a decision you're able to make at all."
I was puzzled, but she'd said something similar before, and Haymanot's words from last night came back to me. I could see the outline forming in my brain, like a storm cloud boiling up over the savannah. I was standing at the brink of something. And everyone was expecting me to jump without ever telling me what awaited me at the bottom. It made me frustrated and angry and a little scared. I needed something to lash out at; I needed someone to hug me and tell me everything was going to be all right.
Instead I gave Mother a distant smile and told her I'd do as she suggested. But she'd decided that she wanted to spend the whole day with her eldest daughter, for the first time in I don't know how long, and she suggested we walk down to the lake. She asked me to bring my spear in case of danger, and I felt pleased and proud at her trust.
And truth be told, I enjoyed that day more than I'd ever expected. She told me all about meeting Father, and I hesitantly shared some of the thoughts and feelings I'd had earlier, and she didn't laugh at me but smiled understandingly and told me that she'd felt the same when she was my age. And then, greatly daring, I asked her if she still thought about Biftu.
She just looked at me for a long, long moment, her face expressionless, until I wanted to crawl away, pull the world in behind me in embarrassment. But then she said, "You were very close to your sister, weren't you, dear?" I nodded mutely. Mother put her hand gently on my arm, her voice low and sad. "I think about her every day. And I know you do too. After she died, your father and I were so worried about you. We were terrified that we'd lose you too, that you'd go off and never come back. That you wanted to die, so you could be with her again."
Tears filled my eyes. "I don't want to leave you! I never wanted to go away. But I did want my sister to come back. I still do. Do you think it's possible? Could Biftu come back?"
"Oh no. Dear, no. It's not possible. You have to move on. Tiruneh has taken her back to Himself. Wherever she is, she's happy."
"But – " I thought of the last time I'd seen Biftu. She hadn't seemed happy. Not at all. I wondered if I should tell Mother what happened, immediately decided against it. It would only upset her more, and I didn't want to lay my burden on her too. I took a different approach. "They said she was taken by nightwalkers. They're a sort of demon, aren't they? Perhaps she's still with them. Perhaps she's alive."
"No. Don't ever think that. Nightwalkers don't capture prisoners. They're nothing but killers." Her hand on my arm shook with suppressed horror and misery. "Don't ever let yourself think otherwise."
"But why didn't we find – " I choked on the words, but forced them out, "- find a body?"
Mother didn't reply to that for a long time, until I began to think I'd said the wrong thing again. But then she took me over to a large rock overlooking the lakeshore, sat me down on it, and took a seat next to me. Told me very seriously that she thought I was old enough to know this now. She said she'd talked to Grandmother Heran back when Biftu was killed, asked her for everything she knew about nightwalkers. It suddenly dawned on me that Mother had had exactly the same idea as me, that she could get Biftu back somehow! I looked at her with startled new eyes, felt closer to my mother than I had done for years. But she wasn't finished. She went on to tell me what Grandmother had told her.
What nightwalkers did to their victims. Where new ones came from. What exactly they were.
I was horrified, and repelled. This was disgusting. It was wrong. And beneath it all, kindling slowly but banking up its heat, came my anger. Hotter and hotter it burned in my chest. White hot corrosive rage at the world that allowed this to happen. At the nightwalkers, and what they did to my sister. They would pay for this. If it took my entire lifetime and a thousand lifetimes beside, every last one of them would pay for this. I remembered my conversation with Haymanot, remembered a name. I called on Qasafi to witness my words. Help me keep my promise. Help me destroy them all.
Mother was staring at me, fear in her face, her eyes locked on mine. It pierced me to the heart. I forgot my anger, flung my arms around her, begging her not to worry. That I'd become strong, that I'd protect her, that she wouldn't lose me. I was babbling, and crying, and she was crying too, and we hugged each other for a long time.
Then she drew back a little, and sighed.
"I knew it would come to this. I hoped it wouldn't. I wanted you to be a normal girl, get married, have children, have a normal life. I might have known you'd never do the usual thing. You were always stubborn. Here. I've got something for you."
She rummaged inside her wrap, pulled something out. It was a little piece of ivory, carved into the form of a cross. I recognised the shape immediately, remembered the same symbol scarred into the body of a woman warrior from another clan. I looked at Mother, my eyes full of questions.
"I got this from my own mother. I... I lacked the strength to bear the mark myself. I chose a different destiny. And it's a choice I've never regretted, because I have you, and Haset, and my husband. I have my life. But you, Hiywan, you're strong enough. You're the strongest person I've ever known, and I'm proud of you, and I'm terrified for you, and I trust you. Here, take it. Keep it secret and keep it safe."
I held out my hand for it, not daring to ask the thousand questions that seethed in my brain. But Mother knew me too well.
"Don't worry, dear. You'll get answers. You'll get them all tonight. It's the night of the full moon, and you're here in our clan's sacred place, and we both know how your body's been changing recently. None of these things are a coincidence. Whatever else happens tonight, the child I've known for all these years won't be here tomorrow."
She smiled at me gently.
"I hope I'll be just as proud of the woman who'll take her place."
The rest of the day seemed almost anticlimactic. We gathered rushes down by the lakeside, bundled them up into two big piles to carry over our shoulders back to the clan for bedding. We talked about little things; funny stories, gossip about our clanmates. Mother seemed determined to keep the mood light and cheerful; as for me, I felt content now I knew what the big mystery was.
Or at least, I thought I did.
We headed back to the camp as the sun set. With such a large gathering of people in one place, it was likely that any danger would be giving the area a wide berth, but there was no point in taking chances. Mother asked me not to tell anybody what we'd discussed; I got the impression that she'd broken one of our laws by warning me in advance what was going to happen tonight. I didn't want to get her into trouble – or call attention to myself – but part of me was bubbling with astonished glee that Mother could be such a rebel. I thought about the fact that she'd once been my age herself, and I wondered what sort of person she'd been back then.
This evening was more subdued than the previous one. The men were still talking about arranging a big communal hunt, but now they'd got to the detailed planning stage, arguing about methods and tactics and location. There was a storytelling session for the children, and we older ones were roped into looking after them. It might have been just my paranoia, but I felt sure the adults were watching us more closely than normal. Making sure we didn't slip off. I kept sneaking glances at my friends, wondering if they suspected what was going to happen, or if I was the only one with the secret. Haymanot was nowhere to be seen. Mother was deep in conversation with Grandmother Heran. I saw Esyete, and longed to ask her about last night and what she'd thought of Seble, but there were always too many others around and I didn't get the chance to talk to her properly.
And at last the long, tense evening was over, and nothing had happened! We all made our way to our sleeping spaces, and I felt a crushing disappointment. Had Mother lied to me? Had she made a mistake? Or was this just something that would happen while I was asleep? I thought that becoming an adult would be, well, more spectacular than this. I gazed dubiously down at my body. Would it still look the same in the morning, or would I have changed somehow? Disgruntled, I settled down on the soft, sweet-smelling rushes we'd gathered, and drifted off to sleep.
My dreams that night were strange and frightening. I saw the faces of my clan, but distorted with anger and a terrible hunger. Their eyes burned yellow with hatred, great fangs erupted from their mouths to rend my flesh. I screamed in revulsion, struck out at them in a frenzy, and there was a strange weapon in my hands, bright red like fresh blood, its blade hard and cold and glittering like solid starlight. A terrible power filled me, and I swung the blade, and at every stroke another monster died, until there was only one of them left. I stabbed it through the heart, and as it died its face changed back to human, and I recognised my mother staring back up at me until her body faded to dust and ash.
I started upright, trying to cry out in horror and denial, but there was a rough hand over my mouth. More hands grasped at my limbs. I felt the burn of a rope around my ankles. I struggled frantically, kicked out, and was gratified to feel the rope come loose. My foot connected with something solid, and there was an anguished grunt of pain and muffled curses. Urgent voices whispered, heavy weights pinned my legs despite all I could do, and a leather bag was pulled down over my face, drawn tight over my mouth. It smelled hot and musty and breathing became difficult. I still tried to fight even so, but it was a losing battle. The rope went around my ankles once again, tighter this time, and my wrists too. More whispers, and a low laugh. Then I was hoisted into the air, slung over a shoulder, and I felt myself being carried off.
Down into the darkness, and who knew what fate?
Go to Chapter Seven