Here’s chapter 2 of Hiywan’s Story. In chapter 1, Hiywan – the girl who will one day become the First Slayer – told us of her early childhood with the Five Trees clan, and how her sister Biftu was taken by Nightwalkers and made into one of them. Now in chapter 2, Hiwan approaches adulthood and must learn some important lessons about herself – but are they the right ones?
3,239 words. Rating 15 for non-explicit violence including the butchering of Paleo-Bambi and references to human sacrifice. Incidentally, my new banner for this story was inspired by frenchani’s holiday photo of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.
ETA - I've created a chapter listing, list of characters and background information for this fic.
Hiywan’s Story - Chapter 2
After my last night with Biftu, things were different somehow. The clan moved away, to new hunting grounds on the other side of the Valley nearer Big Lake. I kept looking out for my sister; I’d think she was behind me, and turn to speak to her, but she’d be gone. Sometimes I thought I saw her watching us from the shelter of some rocks, or hiding behind a tree, but when I looked more closely it was just a trick of the shadows. I didn’t tell Mother about this; I didn’t talk much at all, that summer. Esyete was worried about me; I still played with her, but it wasn’t the same without Biftu toddling along behind us trying to join in our games.
Then the next year, after the rains, I got a new sister. Mother called her Haset, which means ‘Joy’, but she didn’t bring much joy to my life. In fact, I was furiously angry with Mother. I thought at first she was trying to bring Biftu back for me, which felt wrong somehow but also made me secretly pleased. But Haset just lay there and wriggled and cried a lot, and wouldn’t play with me at all, and she was a horrible sister who wasn’t anything like Biftu, and I hated her and I hated Mother and in fact I hated just about everybody. I even hated Esyete, because she thought Haset was wonderful and used to beg Mother to let her hold her whenever Mother’s arms got tired.
So I spent a lot of time alone that year. I didn’t care much; whenever my family were around I always seemed to end up fighting with them. Sitting out under the broad sky, warm wind in my face, watching the herds as they travelled down to the lake to drink was the only time I felt at peace. Mother worried about me, going out by myself like that, and with hindsight I know she was terrified of losing a second daughter to some unknown peril. At the time, though, I felt nothing but resentment at her attempts to control my life. But Father gave me a spear of my own – really only a fire-hardened stick, without the lethal stone point that the men’s spears had, but still an impressive weapon for a child – and told me it was my job to stand guard over the clan and protect us all. If I saw anything dangerous, anything at all, I must run and shout and warn everybody so they could get to safety. “I know you’re brave, Hiywan, but if you want to be our protector like this, you can’t stay to fight whatever attacks us; it’s much more important to warn the rest of the clan so the weak ones can get to safety. Do you promise?”
Of course I did promise, because Father was trusting me with something serious, and I didn’t want to let him down. And it gave me an excuse to be by myself, and know I wasn’t just sneaking out of doing my chores, but was doing a really important job for my whole clan. And secretly, deep in my heart, I was afraid of what happened to Biftu, and didn’t want it to happen to me – though I‘d never have said that aloud to anyone – and so promising to run from danger wasn’t really so hard to do.
And so the year passed, and I began to recover some of my old energy; but all the clan thought I was quieter than before. I rarely spoke, and never laughed any more. I did treasure my spear, and used to practice with it whenever I could. The other girls used to laugh at me for that, and tease me for pretending to be a boy; but Grandmother Heran overheard them one time, and grew angry and scolded them. She said that while it was true the Great Spirit Tiruneh had called men the spear-wielders, it was not taboo for women to use them at need. And when some of the boys still looked as if they’d contradict her if they dared, she took the spear from one of them and hefted it thoughtfully in her hand. Now Grandmother Heran was the oldest of our clan by far, and she normally moved slowly and carefully. But as she held the spear it was as if her muscles suddenly remembered their youth and strength, and she cast her arm back then swung her whole body forward with grace and speed – if, perhaps, not as much force as one of the men might have managed. But the spear flew straight and true from her hand, and hit the tree we were using for a mark dead centre, with enough power that it took Assefa and Melesse together half the afternoon to pull it free again. The boys looked at her in shock, but my own eyes were filled with the sudden fire of possibilities, and I could swear she winked at me before turning to leave.
I’m not exactly sure what happened next, but I think Heran spoke to Ariam, the wife of Belaye our chieftain. And soon after that, Belaye gave orders that when the greatest hunters and warriors of our clan gathered the boys around them, to teach them the ways of stalking and chasing and killing, I should be allowed to join them.
I did not hesitate for a heartbeat. The tools of death came easily to my hands, as though they were born to be a part of me. I had a lot of anger inside me in those days, and I threw myself into the training and exercises with ferocious energy. Yet perhaps strangely, when it came time for me to kill my first prey – a small fawn, barely higher than my knee – I felt no hatred for it, no great satisfaction in its death, but rather a kind of vague emptiness. I was alive, it was now dead; the world continued unchanged. Mind you, I was very proud of my skill, for my spear hit it at the first shot and dealt it a fatal blow, so it died within minutes.
So I said the prayers sending its spirit back to the Antelope Mother and thanking her for her bounty, then Fekadu the hunter lent me his flint knife and watched me critically as I clumsily struggled to butcher the fawn. I’d hoped to make its fur into a new body wrap for Mother, as a kind of peace-offering; but I made such a mess of the skinning that the leather ended up good for nothing. I cried tears of silent frustration as I wiped my blood-soaked hands on the grass and gave Fekadu back his knife. But that evening my family ate meat for supper – only a tiny mouthful each, for the deer was really very small, but it had been won by my hand alone. They praised me, and I felt proud and forgot my earlier distress for a time.
Then next day I went back to Fekadu and asked him to show me what I’d done wrong, and watched his hands carefully as they worked, and swore to never embarrass myself that way ever again.
Before long I was surpassing all the boys of the clan with my skill at hunting, and there were some jealous whispers about me. I even got into a few fights, and I certainly didn’t win all of them, although I always fought my hardest. In some strange way, though, after that the boys started to show me a lot of respect and even talk as though they were proud of me. I didn’t become their leader or anything like that – I was too solitary, too fond of my own company to enjoy any such role – but I felt part of the clan again for the first time since my sister went away. We still had fights, but now they were more for the thrill of it than out of any anger or rivalry.
Then a new year turned around, and the oddest thing happened. All of a sudden the boys seemed much smaller than me! I was taller, had a longer reach… and that meant I could beat them in a fight without ever letting them come close enough to land any blows on me. It was wonderful, and I took full advantage of my new power. But the women of the clan started looking at me in a funny way whenever they thought my attention was elsewhere, and then suddenly the boys were told by their parents that they weren’t allowed to fight with me any more.
I was upset, and went to commiserate with my cousin Esyete. We’d grown more distant in recent years, but she was still my friend, born the same summer as me, and there were some things we could only talk about to each other. She’d never understood my love of hunting, the joy I took in fighting the boys; but as we discussed it now she giggled and said in a teasing tone of voice that she wouldn’t have minded a wrestling match with Assefa herself, and she was jealous of me. I looked at her in shock, and then three things I'd seen without really noticing before became starkly clear to me. First, that my new status as a giant among the other children didn’t apply to Esyete, for she had also become tall enough to still look me in the eye. Second, that calling her one of ‘the other children’ was no longer fully accurate. And most terrifying of all, something I’d been refusing to think about or admit to myself over the past few months: that my own body was slowly changing to mirror the alterations I was recognising in my cousin.
‘Why was that such a surprise?’ you may ask. After all, we of the Five Trees clan spent our entire lives together, sleeping in the same shelters, men and women and children side by side, so what you moderns call “the facts of life” were well known to us all from infancy. But remember that we believed in the power of the spirits, in Tiruneh the Great Good One, and Tsehay the Burning Warrior, and Serkalem the Always-Living. A child became a woman when Serkalem blessed her and shared Her secrets with her. I had gone through no such ritual, and my body had no business changing like this without it. It upset my childlike trust in the world’s orderliness which – though badly disturbed by Biftu’s death – had never quite left me.
Esyete looked a little anxious when I explained my worries to her, but she was always calmer and more accepting than me. She was sure that if it was time for us to go through the women’s initiation ceremony our parents would already be arranging it, and our bodies were just getting ready for the change. That comforted me a little, but I spent the next few days worriedly spying on the adults to see whether Esyete was right.
Instead, the next week Belaye announced that the clan would move to Five-Trees itself.
This was exciting for everybody, because the place our clan took its name from was a powerful and sacred site. Several streams emerged from caves there, in the side of the Valley’s walls, and most of them offered pure, fresh water. But one of them flowed out from higher up the cliff, and landed in a pool that was sheltered by a small group of tall trees; and its water was brackish and undrinkable. That might seem like a curse; but Tsehay the Burning Warrior blessed our clan and sent His heat to slay the foul stream as it left its pool and flowed into the valley. Where the waters dried in the sun’s heat they left behind glittering white crystals; and our clan gathered these as treasure. Sprinkled onto meat they could preserve it from decay for many days. We even traded the crystals with other clans, who dwelled in the Wide World beyond the Valley, exchanging them for flint and ochre. There was a low spot in the cliffs that lined the Valley near this place, and a path that led to the lands beyond; and every few years we would meet here in uneasy truce. I laughed at myself remembering how, as a young child, I’d believed that only demons dwelt in the Wide World; for now I knew that even my own father and uncle had once been part of the Red Earth clan before marrying Mother and her sister Samrawit and being adopted into the Five Trees. Esyete speculated happily that we were going to meet the Red Earth again, and maybe find ourselves husbands of our own there.
As it turns out, she was half right.
We were on the march for three days, the men with great bundles on their backs, the women carrying the children too young to walk far alone. It was a tiring and hungry time, for there was little time to hunt or gather food as we travelled. For some reason Ariam and Belaye wanted us to reach Five-Trees before the moon was full, and so we had to hurry. At last, though, the cliffs loomed high overhead, and we saw the three living trees of our clan’s sacred site standing tall and proud against the sunset. That night, Grandmother Heran told us all the story behind that. I’d heard it before, of course, but some of the younger children hadn’t, and anyway, this was one of the most important legends of our clan.
She told how our ancestors had once wandered the Valley aimlessly, little better than the herds of antelope we hunted. Serkalem the Always-Living fed us with Her bounty, and loved us as Her children. But Serkalem’s husband Tsehay grew angry with Her, for He wanted us to become men and women and do great deeds and live like people, not animals. He and Serkalem quarrelled, and then They fought. In his fury Tsehay threw down His great spear that burned with white fire, and struck Serkalem so She shuddered and cried out, and Her tears of pain flooded the land. The spear hit one of the five trees that grew in this place, and the fiery heat of Tsehay’s anger caused it to burst into flames. But the bravest of our ancestors, by name Adamu, crept closer and took some of the fire for himself. That was the true start of our clan, for with fire we could harden our spears, and keep the predators distant, and cook our food, and keep warm at night. Adamu kept the fire as his sacred trust, nestled in a crude jar of clay and fed regularly with grass and twigs, glowing dull red until he blew on it to re-light the fire each time we settled in a new camp, then taking one of the coals from the dying fire as we left the camp to keep safe once more. When he died he passed the fire to his son, and so the clan prospered.
But now came the dark part of the tale. We shivered in anticipation, and huddled closer together as Heran stood before our own burning campfire. Because one of Adamu’s descendants had failed in his trust, and let the fire go out, and so almost doomed us to extinction. Heran told us his name was now lost, because everyone had refused to speak it thereafter, and it would be the worst bad luck to give any new child that name. For forty days the clan had shivered in the darkness, and eaten its food raw, and prayed to Tiruneh the Great Spirit for mercy. But at last the clan elders decided that only the blood of the traitor would appease the spirits. They seized him, and took him to the sacred grove, and made a framework of branches. He was tied to it spreadeagled, and raised up so that his death would not pollute Serkalem the Mother, and then the men of the clan pierced him with spears, and left him there in Tsehay’s sunlight to die.
For three days and nights he hung there, and we almost despaired. But then Tiruneh took pity on the Five Trees, and ordered His son Tsehay to help us. The Spirit of the Sun threw His spear down once more, and the second of the trees burst into flames, and Serkalem wept in anguish. But this time it was the women of the tribe who took charge of the fire, and ever since that day it has been the responsibility of the chieftain’s wife to guard and tend it. We all turned to look at Ariam, who stared back at us proudly, then Heran clapped her hands and urged us all to go and get some rest.
As the clan dispersed to find the sleeping furs, I went up to Grandmother Heran and whispered “If there are five trees, does that mean we get three more chances if the fire goes out again?” She seemed shocked, and boxed my ears for impertinence, but I could swear she was hiding a grin and the blow didn’t hurt all that much. But then she looked more serious, and said, “I don’t think Belaye would be pleased if we had to sacrifice his wife to the spirits. And I certainly don’t think Ariam would like the idea.”
“Why not? If you die to save the entire clan, isn’t that a good thing?”
She frowned at me. “Death is never a good thing. It’s a waste.”
“I don’t agree. I kill things all the time; when I got that big antelope last month you all praised me for it. And you ate some of the meat yourself! So if someone hurt the clan, really hurt us, why shouldn’t they die too? Especially if killing them would bring the fire back. I’d do it myself.”
“Would you?” The look she gave me now was deadly serious. “Hiywan, do you enjoy killing?”
I shrugged, and was about to give a flippant answer when something in her manner warned me. I thought back to my first slaying, how the fawn’s blood had covered my hands. I thought about my sister. And my answer when it came was low-voiced and hesitant.
“I- I don’t enjoy it. But I think it’s right. I think some deaths are necessary, because… because they help us survive. Because they keep us alive. Because some things are meant to be – and some things are not.”
I felt Grandmother’s searching expression piercing me through. In the flickering firelight I couldn’t tell if her stare was accusing or approving.
“So you’re willing to kill. But are you willing to die?”
A cold shiver went through me at her tone. I remembered my sister’s voice whispering in the darkness, calling my name. My answer was low but determined.
“Yes. If I had to… if it was the right thing to do. There are… there are some things much worse than dying.”
Grandmother stared at me a little longer, then nodded abruptly and told me to go and sleep. I felt as though I’d just been through the most important test of my life.
But whether I’d passed or failed, I had no idea.