Here it is - the final chapter of Hiywan's Story (Book One, at any rate). The day I never thought would happen has arrived. :-) People who deliberately don't read WIPs can now start reading if they want to... As a reminder, as well as the eight chapters of Hiywan's Story which cover her childhood years, back in January (on the 360th anniversary of the execution of King Charles I, as it happens) I also wrote I Am Destruction. That story returns to Hiywan in a later point in her life, after she's become the First Slayer; it can therefore be considered as an already-written sequel to this story. Other aspects of her life, such as how she was forced to become the Slayer in the first place, might well be filled in by me later in new fics.
But for now, please enjoy the final chapter of the longest single fanfic i've ever written. :-)
The link to previous chapters, a list of characters and background information is here. Rating 12, this chapter 3,970 words.
In the previous chapter, Hiywan has met the gods, and her life has been claimed by Qasafi the Destroyer... 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.
The world froze about me. I had no breath; my very heart seemed to stop its beating. The Gods themselves, Father Tsehay and Mother Serkalem and even Great Tiruneh, were still and quiet; waiting, expectant. Qasafi Teferi alone filled my vision, the black glittering knife in Its hand cold as my death - and in Its other hand, a small token: a shard of flint, the fragment of a weapon.
I heard whispering in my ears, distant voices, the sounds of girls like me, thousands upon thousands of them. Who were they? Their thoughts pressed heavy upon me, raw fear and cold anger, passionate devotion and gleeful acceptance. Had they also faced this moment? Or would they, in days to come?
It should have been a comfort, to know that I was not alone in this. But it was not. I was alone; truly alone. I looked into the face of the darkness, and in that moment I made my choice.
Serkalem's token still lay in her hand, unheeded and forgotten. I glanced at it a moment in regret, but that could not be my life now. Qasafi the Destroyer had spoken. It thought to claim me for Itself, and I could not deny my destiny. But my will was still my own.
I stood, and reached out - but not for the token Qasafi was offering me. I put my hand around the long knife in Its other hand, the real one, the deadly one. I pulled it towards me. There was a moment of resistance, but I tugged hard and then the dagger was in my grasp. The Gods recoiled in shock, one of them giving a gasp of surprise that sounded far too human - and then I could swear I heard Teferi Itself chuckle softly.
The knife was far too big to be a token for my amulet, but I didn't care. I stood proudly and defiantly in front of the Gods, brandished my new weapon and said, "I have chosen." And if my voice squeaked slightly on the last syllable, I'm sure nobody but me noticed.
And then there was a long, long pause... and then Great Tiruneh nodded His head, and spoke.
"She has, indeed, chosen. She is yours, Qasafi my servant."
And with that there was another huge crash of thunder, and the three Great Gods turned and filed out of the chamber. Leaving me alone with Qasafi the Destroyer.
I wasn't sure what to expect then; but it certainly wasn't that the Feared One, the Destroyer of Gods, would chuckle again and say in a wry tone "You always were one for the grand gestures, Hiywan. Still, you made your choice. Look after that dagger carefully; it holds powerful magic."
I knew that voice! But just as I was trying to place it, the God spoke again, and this time Its voice was once again cold and mighty as the storm.
"Follow me, Chosen One."
And I followed.
As we left the cavern, the air felt fresher, less heavy with smoke, and I gripped the dagger tightly as I wondered where Teferi was leading me. But then we rounded a corner, and suddenly arms clutched me on either side, and a leather bag was once again pulled over my head! I instantly tried to jerk out of their grip, but my captors were expecting that and I failed to break free. But then one of them whispered in my ear, amused exasperation filling her voice: "Spirits damn it, kid, stop struggling!"
Now that voice I did recognise. "Haymanot! What are you doing? Didn't I tell you not to call me a kid?!"
"Well, you are a kid. But any moment now, you won't be. And then I'll stop calling you that."
"You can stop calling me it now! And what--" But before I got any further, a stern adult voice called for quiet. I waited, wondering what would happen next; and then the hood was removed once again from my eyes, and I was dazzled by a torch held close to my face. Blinking, I could just make out that I was in a small stone chamber, standing at the centre of a ring of people. One of them spoke.
"Who is this you bring before us?"
Another of the circle stepped forward, and I realised it was Grandmother Heran. "She is Hiywan, a daughter of the Five Trees Clan, and she has been recognised by the Gods, and she has chosen to take her place in life as an adult of the People."
"Then let it be so. Hiywan of the Five Trees, you have passed through death. Are you ready for rebirth?"
"--." I cleared my throat, tried again. "Yes I am."
"Then accept the gifts of your Divine Parents; the fire of Tsehay and the water of Serkalem. Put your hand in the flame."
What? I reached out my hand towards the torch gingerly, not liking this idea at all. But once again Haymanot whispered in my ear. "Just do it really quickly and it won't hurt at all. Well, not much." I didn't want to seem like a coward, so I took a deep breath then waved my hand quickly through the torch flame. It flickered and danced, and despite Haymanot's assurances pain lanced through me; but then cool water poured down over my hand and soothed the burn as one of the other women emptied a water bladder over it.
"This is your final lesson as a child; life holds both pain and comfort. Remember this."
And then Haymanot and the other girl holding me - I didn't recognise her, but I think she was from the Red Earth Clan - took a rope of braided hide, tied into a circle, and passed it over my head. They drew the loop slowly down over my body, then dropped it to the ground around my feet.
"Step forward and take your place as a woman of the Five Trees Clan."
And so I stepped out of the circle, over the braided cord, and from one breath to the next I became an adult.
Truth be told, it didn't actually feel any different. But the people around me started greeting me as if they'd never seen me before, and calling me by name; and Grandmother Heran even hugged me, something she only rarely did. As for Haymanot, she punched me on the shoulder and said "See? Now you're not a kid. I'll have to think of something else to call you."
"I can think of something else to call her." That was the other older woman who had spoken before, and now she looked at me sternly. "She is one of the Chosen of Teferi, is she not?"
"She is indeed." That was Grandmother Heran who replied, and she pointed at the dagger I was still holding. "Not only was she chosen, she chose herself."
"Very well." She looked into my eyes. "You know what this means, do you not?"
"No, I don't!" I hadn't meant to be so blunt, but once I'd started, the words poured out. "I know that Teferi is dangerous and powerful and I'm sorry if swearing in his name made him choose me but that was because of the Nightwalkers and what they did to-- to-- and anyway if it means I can still be a warrior I'm fine with that but I don't know who you people are or what you're expecting me to do now or what any of this means because nobody ever tells me anything!"
I paused for a very shaky breath, and the women around me exchanged glances. Then Grandmother Heran stepped forward.
"What my sister Kelile meant was: now you are a Chosen of Teferi, do you realise that you will have to devote your life to the God's service? Teferi has set Its mark upon you now, and there is no going back from that. But what Kelile was not going to tell you yet - " she added this in a sardonic voice - "Is that all of us here carry that same mark. We are the bearers of Teferi's power, sworn protectors of our clans, warriors against the Darkness. Yet there are many who would abuse our power, or seek to steal it for their own ends, and that is why we do not share our secrets with outsiders."
"Until now, apparently." That was Kelile again, looking reprovingly at Grandmother. But Heran stared back, unabashed.
"Hiywan is one of us now."
"She does not bear Tsehay's Sign. She has not sworn the vows. Perhaps she will lack the strength, as her mother also failed that test."
I almost erupted into an angry outburst then, but Haymanot's hand tightened on my arm as a warning. What was that about Mother? But Heran spoke in tones of serene confidence. "She will pass your tests." I stood up straighter, determined to prove her right.
"Very well then." Kelile turned to me. "Hiywan of the Five Trees, are you ready to fulfil your duty as a Chosen of Teferi?"
"Yes. Assuming that you actually tell me what that duty is."
She gave a tiny sigh of exasperation. "Will you swear in Qasafi's name that you will fight for humanity and be the defender of your people? Will you stand against the nightwalkers, the demons and the forces of darkness?"
Oh, I had no problem at all swearing to do that. Gladly. "Yes, I will."
"Will you treat all the Chosen of Teferi as your sisters, keep our secrets and obey our laws?"
Well... it didn't seem like I had much of an option there. "Yes."
Kelile smiled at me then, but it wasn't a kind smile. "Do you realise that as a Chosen One, you are forbidden to marry? All of humanity will be your children, but you can bear no child of your own. Are you sure you still wish to join us?"
Oh. Part of me had already suspected that would be one of the rules. After all, you couldn't hunt or fight to defend the clan if you were pregnant, or nursing a baby at your breast, could you? And hadn't that been my biggest worry before, that becoming a woman would force me to put down my spear? So it should be an easy promise to make. And yet...and yet somehow it wasn't. A thought struck me.
"Is this the vow my mother refused to take?"
"Your mother was weak. Is her daughter also weak, or do you choose to be strong?"
The hint of spite in her tone infuriated me. "Mother wasn't weak. She just made a different choice to the one you wanted her to make! She chose Father, and, and me! Without children, the clans would die!"
"And without us, the clans would also die. Painfully and with great suffering. This is the sacrifice we must make, to ensure the safety of all. We have all made this choice; do you?"
I looked round the circle of faces. They each met my eyes; some with compassion, some with challenge, some with neutral, measuring gaze. Last of all I looked at Haymanot; she nodded at me solemnly... then spoiled the effect, just as I was about to turn away, by winking at me! I wasn't at all sure what she meant by that, and felt my face heat as I pondered the possible implications. But if Haymanot didn't find this oath a burden, I felt reassured that I too could live with it. So I turned back to Kelile with proud defiance and promised to follow their law.
If she was surprised, she didn't show it, but nodded grimly. "There is one more test, which is also our gift to you. Now listen as our sister Belatiuw recites our history."
The other older woman, who hadn't yet spoken, stepped forward. Her face was lined, her hair grey, and I bowed my head in automatic respect to one so ancient. In my mind, though, I did wonder whether having to listen to her speech was really my final test. Would I fail if I looked bored, or yawned? The story as it began was certainly familiar enough. Belatiuw spoke of Tiruneh who is eternal; and how He created the Father and Mother from His divine thought alone. And then Tsehay and Serkalem met together in the first marriage, and from Their union came all the spirits of the world, the winds and rocks and rivers and trees and grasses and insects and birds and animals, and last of all the People.
But then the story took a new turn, and I gasped in shock as Belatiuw told how not every spirit in the world came from the divine marriage. There were other, older powers in the world; and they hated the children of Tsehay and Serkalem and sought to corrupt or destroy them. Were they the first creations of Tiruneh, who defied His will and rebelled against Him, and so gave up their birthright? Or were they none of His seed at all, but invaders from Outside? The truth of this was hidden from us - but whatever it was, the thought of Gods able to defy Great Tiruneh Himself filled me with cold horror.
And yet there was still hope in the darkness. Tsehay the Burning Warrior fought gallantly to defend His children, and the heat of the Sun burned many of them and caused others to flee its deadly rays. Serkalem the Ever-Living sustained Her children, healing them and bringing them life, and creating places of safety where none of the Evil Ones could enter. The enemy Spirits themselves even aided the forces of Life, for in their lust for power they often turned on each other in betrayal, and the greatest of them were overthrown by secret murder and internecine war. In this battle the People stood proudly alongside their divine Parents, and learned their secrets and their magics, and used them in the fight. Victories were won, and many of the enemy Spirits were killed, or driven from the world, or imprisoned in deep pits in the earth.
But not all of them. The stronger ones survived, and their icy determination to destroy the People grew colder and more fierce. They brought forth children of their own, demon armies that fed upon humanity and corrupted it to swell their ranks. Against such a fierce foe the People could not stand; we were driven from our homes and slaughtered. Evil triumphed, seizing the entire world in its cold, frozen grip, and the pitiful survivors huddled in caves and hid from the bleak darkness outside. Tsehay despaired then, His shining power grown dim and weak from the many wounds He had suffered in our defence.
But His sister-wife did not surrender, but found new strength deep in the core of Her being. She went before Her father Tiruneh, and beseeched His help on behalf of Her children. She promised to pay whatever price Her father demanded; and He listened, and agreed.
And then Great Tiruneh departed from the world; and when He returned, He brought with Him the last and most terrible of His creations. This was Qasafi the Destroyer, the bringer of death. Absolute and pure; without pity or remorse. None could stand before It. The Evil Ones were hunted down and destroyed or cast out, one by one, and their armies consumed along with them. But Qasafi was ever-hungry; and when Its demon prey grew scare, It turned to devour the natural spirits of the world too: the children of Serkalem, even the People.
Tsehay was roused from His despair to defend His children, and took up His burning spear to fight this new foe. But He was still weak, and Qasafi knew His every move, countered His every attack, and slipped past His every defence. He would have died then, had not His sister-wife interposed Her body between them. The Destroyer brings death and does not fear it; but It shrank back from the divine love and power of life embodied in Serkalem. It allowed Her to take It, and chain It, and keep It safe.
And this was the boon Great Tiruneh gave His daughter, and the price She must pay. She alone can tame Qasafi, because she is Life when It is Death. She guards the Destroyer, to keep her People safe. But when the Evil Ones return and threaten us again, and the power of Tsehay and His mortal warriors does not suffice to protect us, then Serkalem must once again release Qasafi. The death and destruction It causes is Her responsibility, and only Her divine wisdom can determine whether the prize is worth the cost in blood and suffering.
I looked at Belatiuw, as she ended her tale, in new understanding; and she nodded in answer of my unspoken question. "We are Serkalem's heirs. We bear the power of Qasafi, and it is our privilege and burden to unleash Its power against the enemies of humanity."
Grandmother Heran added her voice. "You understand now, I trust, the need for secrecy? Some ambitious chieftain might seek to use our power in a petty feud against another clan. As for the ordinary people, they know we are there to protect them, and that we have our secrets and that we are strong. They respect us, and yes, some of them fear us. But if they knew the source of our power, that fear might turn to blind panic and rejection; we would be hated."
I looked back at her. "So you - we - keep this secret just so people will like us more?"
She didn't rise to my baiting, but quirked a small smile. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to be liked. But think, Hiywan. If we were hated, driven out, how could we fulfil our duty to protect the People?"
"I suppose so. But what if it's one of the Chosen themselves who turns evil? Tries to use the power for her own ends?"
"An excellent question." That was Kelile again, sounding coldly amused. "This is why we choose our new members so carefully, and watch them to make sure they are suitable. It is also why we bear the Sign of Tsehay, as a reminder of His suffering and sacrifice. We are not the only defenders of the People, and it is well to carry a sign of that with us at all times." She nodded at Haymanot and the other girl who stood behind me. "Hold her still."
Now what? I didn't struggle, this time, as my arms were gripped tightly, but I had a nasty feeling about what awaited me. I'd seen Haymanot remove her wrap that other night, after all; and my fears were confirmed as Kelile walked over and unfastened the knots of my own clothes. They fell to the floor about my feet, and I stood there naked and trying not to show any fear.
Heran then stepped up in Kelile's place, and gestured at my right hand. "The knife, please, Hiywan. You may have claimed it for your own, but it's still our sacred artefact and we need it now." I resisted the urge to cling to it, or fling it far away from me, and instead handed it over to her. That won me a small smile of approval from Grandmother before she stepped back again, giving the knife to Belatiuw.
"Hiywan, you are a woman of the People. You have accepted this status willingly, here before us all, is that not so?" I nodded as Belatiuw approached me. She pointed the dagger at my lower belly, tracing a circle around it then pressing the tip against my flesh. "You already bear Serkalem's Sign upon your body, do you not? You have shed your blood for Her?" I felt myself blush, but nodded again.
Now the dagger moved to my chest, between my breasts, pressing over my heart. "Are you ready to bear Tsehay's Sign too? Will you shed your blood for Him?"
I felt cold, suppressed a shiver. The hands on my arms tightened, as if they feared I would run away. I felt sure Kelile, at least, was expecting and half-hoping I would. I refused to give her the satisfaction, and this time replied aloud. "Yes, I will. Do it."
And then the knife was slicing into my flesh. It felt sharp as a new-cut chip of flint, and the blood ran down over my chest and belly and dripped onto the floor. The pain was hot and fierce, and yet bearable; perhaps it was the sharpness of the blade that cut my skin as though it were nothing but a leaf. Then Belatiuw made a second cut, from side to side, the arms of Tsehay's cross, and I gritted my teeth to keep from crying out. They had all gone through this before me; Haymanot bore the same mark on her own chest, and I wasn't going to be weaker than her.
Then Belatiuw stepped back, my blood painting the knife in her hand, and nodded in satisfaction. I felt relief; it was over, and it hadn't been so bad after all, and--
Kelile walked up to me then, cupping something in her hand, and suddenly slapped her palm against my chest. Liquid fire ran through my veins and turned my bones to ash, and I screamed my throat hoarse. I couldn't help it. She was grinding her hand against my open wound, driving whatever she had been holding deep into it. I felt like I was dying; the cave was spinning around me, a roaring in my ears like the distant echoes of voices. The two women behind me were holding me upright, and I fought desperately to resist the pain, fight it back, not surrender to the darkness. They had gone through this too; I wasn't going to shame myself, I wasn't, I wasn't.
Then Kelile withdrew her hand at last, and the naked raw agony subsided into "mere" hot, throbbing pain. I felt nauseous, and ashamed of my weakness. But then Grandmother approached me in turn, holding a clay bowl; and she carefully sluiced away the blood from my chest, and then gave me the rest of the water to drink. It tasted cool and fresh, with some indefinable hint of taste to it that made me wonder if there was magic here. The sickness in my stomach seemed to ease, at least. Heran smiled at me approvingly, then said, "Why don't we all sit down? Misgana, Haymanot, help your new sister put her clothes back on."
I accepted, with great gratitude, and as my companions sat down around me, Haymanot whispered to me once more, "Way to go, girl! When they did that to me I fainted clean away. They had to pour an entire waterskin over me to wake me up again!"
I blinked, a delighted grin spreading across my face despite the pain that still pulsed in my chest. Seriously, I'd withstood the agony better than she had? My feelings must have been written clearly in my expression, because she then jabbed me with her elbow and muttered, "Don't get cocky. I can still beat you in a fight."
But now the older women had settled themselves around me too, and I looked at their faces in the dancing light of the torches. They all smiled at me in a friendly way; even Kelile didn't look quite so hostile as she had before, and she nodded briefly to me. "Welcome, sister." The others chorused the words, "Welcome, sister. Welcome. Welcome." And then Grandmother Heran took the knife again, my blood still staining its blade, and handed it to me formally, hilt first.
"Welcome, Hiywan. Welcome, Guardian of the Five Trees Clan."
The End of Hiywan's Story, Book One.