I recognised a wildebeest’s thighbone, split open to reach the marrow. But old, very old – perhaps dating back to when our clan last lived here. Just somebody’s meal.
Somehow, that thought wasn’t as comforting as it might have been.
I pressed on, slowly now, as the daylight from the cave entrance faded behind me and the red light of the torches danced along the walls and made the shadows flicker.
ETA - I've created a chapter listing, list of characters and background information for this fic.
As the sun rose next morning we made our way down to Five-Trees itself. The grove, as a sacred place of Tsehay, was taboo to us children and the women; but we gathered just outside it as Belaye led the men twice around the pool then, slicing his palm with a flint knife, let five drops of blood fall onto the blackened stump of the fourth tree. I looked curiously for the remains of the fifth, but nothing was left of it now; Mother pointed out a small cluster of young saplings and undergrowth and told us that was where it once stood.
The men used their axes to fell two of these saplings, then bound them together with corded grass into Tsehay's sacred symbol; the two rays stretching out through the heavens, the third reaching up to His father Tiruneh and the fourth and longest striking down to the earth and linking Him to His wife Serkalem. Chanting a song, the men hoisted the cross vertical and lashed it between two of the standing trees; but what they did next I don't know, because the adults picked that moment to shoo us away. "Men's magic", said Grandmother Heran, "and not meant for our eyes."
Instead, we walked along the base of the cliff for a few hundred paces, crossing the little rills of fresh water that poured from the caves dotting the rock wall. Eventually we came to a much larger opening, that I vaguely remembered from our last stay here several years earlier. Some of the women walked up to the entrance and peered within, but Grandmother Heran hastily called them back. She conducted a brief, low-voiced conversation with Ariam, and then the chieftain's wife clapped her hands sharply and ordered the women to begin collecting firewood, while we children were tasked with gathering roots and seeds for the clan's next meal. Esyete was put in charge of supervising the children; but I, along with the oldest of the boys - Melesse, Assefa and Tilahun - were told to take our spears and stand guard.
Before long the pile of wood in front of the cave entrance grew large enough, and Ariam took out the clay pot that was our clan's most treasured possession. She sprinkled dry grass into it and blew carefully, and the surrounding women gave an 'oooh' of wonder as the coal inside turned bright red and the grass burst into tiny yellow flames. Ariam fed the fire with more tinder, then held a dry stick into the flame until it too caught fire. Giving thanks to the spirits, she used the firestick to light the woodpile. The Five Trees clan had reached its new home.
Or had it? I saw Grandmother Heran still stood between the fire and the cave entrance, watching it cautiously, not letting anyone else approach it. To my shock, I saw she was holding a spear! The dark hole in the cliff face seemed suddenly threatening, ominous. Taking a quick look around to make sure no leopards or hyenas were sneaking up on the happily chattering kids, I made my way over to where Heran kept watch, and joined her peering into the cave. She smiled when she saw me, but her voice was stern.
"Hiywan, don't you have a job to do?"
"Ariam told me to stand guard."
"So - ?"
"I am standing guard! It seems to me the biggest danger to the clan is right here in this cave. Or else why are you watching over it like this?"
She laughed. "If the peril were so great, do you think our chieftain would let an old woman like me guard it alone?"
"You're not alone now. I'm here. Besides, Grandmother, I've seen you throw a spear. You're better than a lot of the men!"
"Hah! Child, time was I was the best in the entire clan. Time was, I wouldn't be standing outside the cave waiting for the men to finish their ritual and get over here; I'd be in there now, by myself. But I've seen too many winters; my arms don't have the strength they once had."
I looked at Grandmother with something akin to shock. I'd never heard her talk like this before, and wondered what had changed to make her willing to be so open with me. Was it our conversation last night? Grandmother had always seemed so sure of herself; for all the years of my life she'd always been there. Solid, unchanging. I felt the earth shifting around under my feet, and gripped my own spear tightly as if to ease my distress.
"So let's both go in there!" I blurted. "There's two of us now; let me be your strength!"
The look in her eyes was warm, but her voice recovered some of its old strictness as she replied. "And just what do you expect us to find in that cave, Hiywan?"
"Uh, I don't know."
"So you'd just go blundering in there, not knowing who or what you might find? Hiywan, you won't be a child for much longer. If you want to become an adult, you have to learn to think like one. So think! Why can't we just go traipsing into the cave?"
The rebellious thought crept through my mind that Grandmother had stopped several of the women doing just that - walking into the cave - and weren't they supposed to be adults? But I held my tongue, and instead considered the question.
"Mmmm - I suppose - some animals might have made it their lair?"
"Good. So what should we do if that were the case?"
"Well, we've got the fire lit now. Go in with torches, drive them out of the cave. Have the spears ready in case they turn on us, but most animals run from fire. Just make sure we leave a clear path to the exit, don't hem them in."
She nodded, pleased. "So you do pay attention to your lessons sometimes. But what if it's not animals?"
I looked confused, then my eyes widened in shock. I almost took a step back, to place Heran between the cave mouth and me, then scolded myself for my cowardice. Grandmother wasn't afraid, so I mustn’t show my own fear!
"You mean... there could be nightwalkers in there?"
"Perhaps. Or some other sort of demon or evil spirit. That's why we wait for the men."
I nodded in fervent agreement... but something was bothering me. "Grandmother, you said that when you were younger you'd have gone in there by yourself? Even if the cave was full of nightwalkers?"
It was the wrong question. I could see the barriers come down across her eyes, as if she knew she'd said too much. Her only reply was a gruff "Don't be silly. Now if you’re going to stay here be quiet. An old lady like me needs to conserve her strength.”
I choked back the rest of my questions and forced myself to stay silent. Pretending to watch the cave, I instead kept glancing back towards the grove, waiting for the men to appear, chanting “Come on, come on, come on” under my breath. Wondering what would happen when we went into the cave…
Of course, when Belaye did lead the rest of the clan to rejoin the women and children, I soon realised that I wasn’t going to go into the cave at all. I was just a kid, and it was far too dangerous. So Father said, and he ordered me to look after Haset while Mother and the other women prepared the meal and the men put together torches and grimly checked the ties on their spears and axes.
Resentfully, I took Haset down to the stream that ran out of the cave. There was white mud along the banks, and soon my little sister was happily making a mess of herself, smearing the mud everywhere. That would keep her busy for a while. Some of the other young ones had the same idea, and there were enough adults watching them that I didn’t feel more than a tinge of guilt as I left her playing and stole towards the cave entrance.
The women gathered around the campfire were intent on their own business, but I hugged the cliff wall tightly then dropped onto my belly to crawl forward, doing my best not to make a sound. The skill that helped me stalk and kill prey out on the savannah now came to my aid in reaching the cave mouth without attracting the attention of Mother or my aunts. It loomed up around me, huge and threatening, and I almost turned back; but summoning up all my courage I inched forward once more.
The darkness closed in around me.
Inside, the cave seemed even larger, and I marvelled at how such a tiny stream could have carved it from the solid rock. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe I was actually entering the mouth of some giant stone beast, that would swallow… I hastily stopped my mind following that train of thought. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that the cave opened into a wider area up ahead, then bent around a corner. Faint light glimmered from that direction, showing where the men had got to.
I picked my way over the uneven floor, around the rough rocky teeth – stop thinking you’re inside a mouth, Hiywan – rocky outcroppings that were scattered around; and then my foot hit something.
I froze, as it clattered across the ground. A piece of bone.
But nothing reacted to the sound, and I bent to take a closer look. I recognised a wildebeest’s thighbone, split open to reach the marrow. But old, very old – perhaps dating back to when our clan last lived here. Just somebody’s meal.
Somehow, that thought wasn’t as comforting as it might have been.
I pressed on, slowly now, as the daylight from the cave entrance faded behind me and the red light of the torches danced along the walls and made the shadows flicker. I was almost at the corner when a sudden sharp pain in my belly made me gasp and almost double over. It felt like a stitch, as if I’d been running for hours, but lower down, and I rubbed my stomach and twisted myself around to try and shake off the ache.
Perhaps that saved my life. There was a sudden outburst of shouting from up ahead, a terrible loud bellowing, then a horrible agonised scream that cut right through me. And then a noise like thunder hastening towards me, a clatter of hooves on rock, and a great dark hairy shape burst around the corner right where I would have been if I’d kept on walking. I had an impression of panting breath, rolling eyes and a smell of blood, and then it was past me and heading for the entrance.
Heading right for where my mother and the other women of the clan were preparing our meal, unaware of any danger.
My mysterious cramp was forgotten. I probably should have been afraid, but I didn’t have time for that either. I grasped my spear and ran full tilt after the creature. Perhaps when it was silhouetted in the daylight at the cave entrance I could get a shot at it. But what would my child’s spear, a mere pointed stick without a flint blade at its tip, do against a monster that had, by the sound of it, already killed at least one of the men? I couldn’t think about that. I could only do my best, and pray to any spirit that would listen for its help.
And then the creature’s foot caught between two stalagmites, and it tripped and fell with a bellow that echoed off the roof. It was trying to struggle back to its feet, but I didn’t hesitate. No need for a chancy throw if I seized this opportunity; I aimed my spear at the base of its neck and, gripping it in both hands, sprinted towards the beast and threw my entire weight behind the blow.
Hot blood sprayed over my arms, my ears were shaken by the creature’s bellow, and its death-throes tore the spear from my hands. I almost fell backwards, terrified by the violence of its convulsions. I could see two more spears now, caught in the flesh of its back; but my own had pierced up through the back of its skull into its brain. A mixture of triumph and nausea filled me, and now I did sit down with a heavy thump onto the stone floor of the cave.
That was how the men found me as they came running around the corner then, waving torches and spears. Belaye was in the lead, and he stopped so abruptly that two of the other hunters ran into him from behind. He scowled at me.
“This is no place for a child. What do you think you’re doing here?”
Before I could speak, one of the other men interrupted.
“It looks like she’s been doing our job for us, doesn’t it?”
At that point Father pushed his way through the crowd, and came rushing over to me. “Hiywan, what happened? Are you all right? Did it hurt you?”
I shook my head. Relief and anger chased each other across his face. “Belaye’s right. You shouldn’t have come in here. You might have been killed! Didn’t I tell you to stay with your sister? What in Tiruneh’s name do you think you were playing at?”
“But I wasn’t hurt; and if I hadn’t killed it myself it might have got Haset and Mother and everybody else!” was what I wanted to say, but somehow the words caught in my throat. I felt self-conscious in front of all the men, but a darker fire burned in my heart. A flame of resentment and anger. How dare Father scold me like this, when I’d probably just saved half the clan? It’s not as if he’d been able to do it. He hadn’t kept his family safe. He hadn’t been able to stop the nightwalkers from taking Biftu…
My head buzzed with all the tangled thoughts and feelings I wanted to scream in his face… but I didn’t. I knew that if I opened my mouth I might destroy everything, so I just stared sullenly at the floor and let his words flow around me without touching me. Eventually they stopped, but I didn’t look up.
Belaye had joined in now, telling Father he ought to punish me for disobeying him like that. But I was beyond caring; I just wanted to get out of there. Fighting the urge to just turn tail and run away like a little girl, I stood up and walked over to the huge corpse to pull my spear free.
“Wait.” It was Rada, Melesse’s father, and his voice was thick with anger and grief of his own. Something in his tone matched my own feelings, caused me to turn and listen.
“Clan sister, there is a debt I must repay.” At the formal words Belaye wheeled around in shock, but Rada brushed past him and knelt before me.
In his hand I saw he was holding not one spear, but two; and as I watched he lay one of them on the ground then held the other up to me. Emotion quivered in his voice, but he spoke firmly and without hesitation.
“My brother Kassa is dead, slain before his time. But his killer now lies dead too, at your hand. We owe you blood-debt.”
Belaye choked in outrage, and several of the other men joined him. “You can’t do this! She’s just a child!”
Rada looked back over his shoulder, and his words were bitter. “This ‘child’, as you call her, just did what none of you men could manage. That monster’s horns practically tore my brother in half, and yet she killed it single-handed. I say she’s worthy, and I pay my debts.”
He gestured for me to take the spear. It was a man’s spear, as tall as I was, and the light of the torches glinted off the facets of its long, sharp blade. It was beautiful and deadly, and I wanted it more than anything I’d ever seen before.
“This was my brother’s spear. It is yours now, in payment of the blood-debt.”
“Hiywan, don’t you dare touch that spear! Rada, you can’t give a man’s weapon to a girl! It’s breaking taboo!”
Perhaps some other time I would have hesitated, obeyed the words of tradition and law. But I was furious now, angry at Father, at Belaye, at the whole world of adults and rules and hypocrisy and betrayal. I reached out my hand and took the spear.
It came easily to my hand. I moved my grip down to find the point of balance, as naturally as walking. The earth did not open to claim me, no fire from heaven struck me down for my temerity. I stood there in that cavern filled with the smell of fear and blood and death, and brandished the weapon as though it was part of me. My defiance, my certainty, the focus of my anger. My identity. My destiny.
Then another mysterious cramp hit me, and I almost dropped the spear as I winced in surprise and pain...
On to Chapter Four