Here's the penultimate chapter of Hiywan's Story (Book One). The link to previous chapters, a list of characters and background information is here. Rating 12, this chapter 2,874 words.
In the previous chapter, Hiywan has just been snatched away in the night, to a fate unknown... 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 don't know how far I was taken. At least twice I was put down, presumably so the man carrying me could rest, then picked up again and borne onwards. After my first failed attempt to break free I didn't try to struggle, preferring to save my strength for a better opportunity. I strained my ears trying to listen to my captors, but the leather bag blocked out sound as well as vision, and they spoke only in whispers. Who were they? Had the other two clans decided to kidnap me for some reason? Such things were not unknown, though in the stories they usually led to feuds and tragedy. But why me? Or had they taken some of the other girls too? Our warriors would pursue them for that, take vengeance, rescue us, surely? But why hadn't they stopped us being taken in the first place? Were they dead? Did the enemy clans use magic to blind and deafen them – did they even know we were gone?
It's perhaps just as well that in my struggle to understand what was going on, it never occurred to me to worry about what they were going to do to me.
At last I was put down again. I felt a hard, cold surface beneath me; my back rested against something rough and rounded. A fallen tree, perhaps? My arms were pulled back behind me, fastened to the object. The rope around my ankles was released and I instantly lashed out, kicking as hard as I could. But my captor was ready for that, and sprang back before I could connect with him. I heard a low chuckle, and fumed in impotent rage. There was more movement around me, muffled conversation. Something heavy was dropped to the ground beside me, sending a vibration through the treetrunk (if that's what it was) that I was tied to. I heard a girl's stifled squeal of pain and fear. So I wasn't the only prisoner. If only I could see! If only I could get my arms free… I tried tugging against the bonds, but they were too strong for me.
But then the leather hood was twitched away from my face, pulled free. And it was just as dark as before! Was I blind? Around me I heard whimpers and sobs – then a boy's voice quavered, "What's happening?" A boy? It always seemed to be girls getting kidnapped in the legends. Something odd was going on here… then the identity of the person who'd spoken penetrated my fear-fuddled senses.
"Melesse? Is that you?"
"Hiywan?! You're here too? What's going on? What are they doing to us?"
A chorus of voices interrupted us, all babbling at once, pleading to know where we were, what was happening, where we'd been taken. The fear and panic were palpable. It was too much. I shouted at them all to be quiet, to let me think. Rather to my surprise they all did, immediately. The blank darkness suddenly seemed full of expectant ears waiting to hear what I would say next.
I gulped. I wished desperately that I were somewhere else, that another person would take over. But it looked like it was up to me.
"I – I think that we've been taken by one of the other clans. M-maybe they need m-more wives," – don't forget Melesse – "…a-and husbands. That means they're not going to hurt us…"
"They might want to sacrifice us to demons!"
"Yeah! Or m-maybe they want to eat us!"
"Shut up! Shut up, all of you! We're still alive, and it's up to us if we want to stay that way. We'll find a way to get free—"
I never finished my sentence, as a tremendous thunderclap of noise erupted in the darkness, rolling back in echoes around us. There were yelps of fear, and I sat bolt upright. What was that?
A second crash resounded, as loud as the first, and again slowly faded. The small part of me that wasn't paralysed with terror listened to the echoes and wondered. Were we inside? A cave? That would explain the darkness…
But then the darkness was broken, and all conscious thought fled my brain.
It was a face. The light shining behind it dazzled my eyes so I could barely see it, but it was vast. Larger than human, with a look of fierce majesty on its countenance. A face to inspire awe and terror. The face of a god.
The thunder crashed again, and the God drifted towards us through the darkness. My companions whimpered and cowered, and there was the sudden stench of terror. I drew my knees up into my chest, huddled into a ball, tried to push myself back into the barrier behind me.
The God turned Its stern, immobile gaze to face us, each in turn. Its eyes seemed to penetrate through to my very soul. I stared back, too afraid to move, not daring to look away. Then I was dismissed; the God moved on to the next in line. I remembered to breathe again.
The next clap of thunder stole that breath away again, as the God spoke!
"Mortals, how do you dare? This is a place of spirits. All who come here must die!"
I thought I'd known terror before. I almost choked on my tongue, cold sweat running down my back. Around me the darkness seemed to burst into sudden life, tiny points of light glimmering in the darkness. Wisps of shadow seemed to drift around us; I heard faint whispers rustling and murmuring. A smoky sweet smell filled my nostrils, and I began to feel lightheaded. Was I dying? Had the God slain us all for our temerity in coming here? But it wasn't fair! We'd had no choice!
More thunder, coming more quickly now. It was familiar; I suddenly recognised the sound of drumming - but surely greater than any instrument humans might use. These were the drums of the gods. And then two more spirits came into view behind the first, and I knew I was truly dead.
The first was male, obviously so. And His great round face was a ring of fire, burning in the darkness. I recognised Tsehay, Burning Warrior, spirit of the Sun, and quivered in fear and exaltation. Behind Him came His sister and wife Serkalem, Ever-Living, Her rounded breasts and belly ample evidence of Her fruitfulness. They moved gracefully to the drumbeats, whirling around each other in a dance, oblivious to us; then each bowed low to the Great God who'd entered first.
"Father, how may we serve you?"
"Behold the mortals who have entered our realm unbidden! Take them as your rightful prey!"
We huddled together as the two Gods seemed to notice us for the first time, advance towards us. This was the end. But as the two figures loomed over us, They suddenly threw Their hands up in disgust, turned Their backs on us! I felt an illogical spurt of disappointment at the rejection, mingled with anger.
"Father, these are but children. They are worthless to us."
"Then we shall destroy them."
The drums crashed like thunder once more. My head whirled, acrid smoke-taste in the back of my throat, but I clung to my sliver of anger like a lifeline. I was a warrior of the Five Trees. I would face my death with bravery, stare it in the face.
And so I saw It approaching. Behind the three Gods it entered, unseen and unheard. The darkness seemed to shrink back away from it, leaving yet deeper blackness glittering at its heart. I sensed hunger and wild rage, and knew this thing would not be my death. Far worse than that. It would be my destiny.
It would destroy everything I ever loved, but it would never destroy me. It knew me. It was me.
Then I blinked my eyes, shook my head to clear the tears that filled them from the bitter smoke, looked again. Saw the scene before me with radically new perception. I saw a person in an elaborate costume, a frightening carved wooden mask covering their face, whirling two smoky torches around them so that in the dim light their form was almost hidden by the looping whorls of blackness. Realisation filled me; but then I took another lungful of the sweet-smelling air, and suddenly I was struggling to separate vision and understanding once more. What was real? Was I among gods, or were these people?
Or were they both? This was a place of magic, and the realm of the spirits pressed closely upon the world of mortals here. Anything could happen. And truth could take many forms.
Tsehay and Serkalem had seen the approaching Power now. They shrank away in fear, wailed in panic; and we children stared up in utter dread at a being that could inspire terror in the Gods themselves. This was Teferi the Feared One, Qasafi, the Destroyer, and no man or god could stand against It. Even Great Tiruneh stepped back, unable to face the most terrible of His creations.
And this was the Power that, in my childish rage and pride, I had called on to help me in my petty revenge!
Teferi stalked towards us, ravenous hunger etched through every shifting, whirling line of Its body. From deep within Itself It drew a long, sharp blade that seemed to drink in the dim light and give nothing back. It raised it to strike the nearest of the cowering mortals –
And suddenly there was a figure blocking its way. Serkalem stood there, defiant despite Her fear, raising Her arms to shield us. A mother facing certain destruction to protect Her children. I could barely dare to look, certain she would be torn apart instantly; but her desperate courage woke a matching flame in my own heart. If this was to be my death, then let me face it the same way; spitting defiance in the face of the Destroyer.
Then the incredible happened:
Qasafi growled and hissed and turned away.
It shrank back, unable to face the vibrant force of life and fierce love embodied in the form of Serkalem the Mother. For the first time since this began hope awoke inside me. But then Tiruneh spoke to His daughter reprovingly:
"You would protect them? These worthless children?"
She bowed her head in shame, and all my fear came rushing back. But then Tsehay stepped forward to join His sister-wife and confront Their father.
"As children they have no claim on our protection, Father. But if they dare to accept rebirth as men and women of the People, shall they not then be worthy?"
I held my breath as I waited for the Great Spirit's answer.
"Do you think they will dare? Will they leave their hearths and their mothers' laps, and face the storm and the sun? Will they join the circle of life and help create new life in their turn? Will they stand alone, and stretch out their hand to their comrades? Will they dare this?"
Part of me wanted to shout "Yes!" but I bit my lip, watching and listening as the drama unfolded.
"Father, I ... I do not know."
But then Serkalem came to the assistance of her brother-husband.
"Then let us ask them. Let them make this choice, each for themselves. Then we will know who is worthy."
And Great Tiruneh nodded His head, and said in stately tones,
"So Be It."
I closed my eyes in relief. I was not going to die here after all; or perhaps I had died already, in which case I was about to be reborn. I was about to become a woman, and I hoped Serkalem the Ever-Living would be proud of me.
But would I have to give up my spear then? Warriors served Tsehay, not Serkalem. Would I have to give up the hunt? Or else would I have to become a man instead? I wasn't sure I liked the sound of that...
I opened my eyes again in panic. I wasn't ready to make such a huge decision! But then I realised that the three Gods were standing at the far end of the log I was chained to, addressing one of my fellow-captives - not me, not yet. They were holding out things to him, and bright torchlight glittered on the chipped facets of a knife as he was cut free of his bonds. He reached out his hand to grasp the object Tsehay was offering him. I craned my neck to get a better look at it, but they were too far away to see clearly in the dancing smoky light.
But then suddenly he was being pulled to his feet, and bundled out of the cavern into the blackness beyond. To what doom? I thought, uneasily, that in order to be reborn, you had to die first, and wondered just how literal that was likely to be.
The Gods had returned, and the next in line was being offered the fateful decision. She suddenly giggled, then hastily cut off the incongruous sound as she reached for the object Serkalem was proffering. I recognised Esyete's voice, and watched my cousin being dragged off too into the darkness.
The boy taking the object from Tsehay's hand this time was unknown to me, which confused me until I realised with a shock that some of the captives around me were not from my clan at all. They must be children of the Lion's Tooth and Red Earth! Here, in our sacred place! I frowned, my brain working overtime. Was this why we came here so urgently, to meet the other two clans beneath the light of the full moon? Was all this planned?
They were getting closer. I would soon have to make my decision. I could see, now, that both Serkalem and Tsehay were holding out small objects, one each; small enough to fit inside the leather bags that most of us wore around our necks as a protective amulet. I thought of the small cross of carved ivory my mother had given me that afternoon - it seemed a lifetime ago now - nestling next to the smooth white pebble, the knuckle-bone of the first deer I killed, and the dried fragment of my own birthcord that lay inside my own, and wondered what new item would soon find its home there.
It was Melesse's turn now, and as I strained into the dim half-light I saw him clutching what looked like a small wooden stick, no longer than the first two joints of my finger, with a bulbous end. I blinked, trying to place it, then felt my face grow warm as I recognised what it was probably a carved representation of.
They were close enough now that I could get a good look; and my suspicions were confirmed. Now I knew why Esyete had giggled, and I was sure my own face was glowing in the dark by now. But it made sense, I supposed: by accepting these magical tokens from the Gods, we were also accepting the adult bodies they represented; we would grow to become what we had chosen.
I giggled myself as I realised this explained why so many men think of that thing between their legs as a gift from the Gods; apparently, it was the literal truth after all! Except - my own body was already changing; certain happenings in the last few days had proven that conclusively to me. But I hadn't accepted any token from Serkalem yet! How could that even work? It was magic, of course, but surely even magic should follow rules. Did this mean my choice was already settled and done? Did I have no option except to take the woman's choice, give up my spear, become a wife and then a mother? For all that part of me wanted that, I felt strangely hollow inside.
This was not a choice I wanted to make! Couldn't I choose both? But the world didn't work that way. Young as I was, I knew that. A brief flash of rebellion stirred even so; couldn't I change the world? Break the rules? But I looked into the great glowing faces of the Gods before me, and I quailed.
And now it was my turn. I was the last. Alone, save for the Gods. I stared at the small carved wooden phallus in the hands of the Burning Warrior, and then at what the Ever-Living held out to me. It was a braided circle of black leather, a small carved bead of reddish wood sewn into the top of the loop. My hands came free as Tiruneh's knife sliced through the thong binding them, and I felt ashes in my mouth as I reached out to make my choice.
And then the Gods were brutally pushed aside, and my heart froze in my chest as Qasafi the Destroyer stood before me. Its eyes held my own locked. The dagger in Its hands drank the light and gave nothing back.
And then It spoke:
"I choose. This one is mine."
Go to Chapter Eight