Finally finished chapter 4!
Incidentally, thanks to the link petzi and dj gave me, I've found out that in some of the comics (which I've not read) the First Slayer was given the name 'Sineya'. This causes a potential canon conflict, which I sidestep as follows: in my Buffyverse, her actual name is Hiywan. Sineya is a title, meaning 'First One' in the language of the Shadow Men. It's what they will call her, because as far as they're concerned the girl called Hiywan no longer exists once she becomes the Slayer, and personal names are a distraction and a weakness anyway. As I said in the introduction to Chapter 1, Hiywan eventually forgot her own name (until Willow's spell of liberation in 'Chosen'); but the Watchers' Council evidently preserved the name 'Sineya' in its records.
It's possible the First Slayer feels some lingering subconsious resentment against people calling on her power using the name 'Sineya', however. :)
ETA - I've created a chapter listing, list of characters and background information for this fic.
The sunlight dazzled my eyes as I emerged from the cavern, my prize gripped tightly in both hands. Behind me I could hear Belaye ordering the men around, telling them to drag the beast’s corpse out of there, and to bring Kassa’s body for his funeral. He sounded annoyed and frustrated, and I really didn’t want to stay around him a moment more than I had to. The women were gathered around the cave entrance, nervous curiosity in their eyes, but they fell back before me and didn’t try to stop me as I stalked out. I’d like to think it was the expression on my face that deterred them, but the huge, vicious spear I was carrying and the fact that I was covered head to toe in the creature’s blood might have had something to do with it too.
Instead, some obscure sense of duty took me to the stream where I’d left Haset, wanting to check she was all right. I found her playing a noisy and energetic game with a group of the other young children, and quite as messy as me – although covered with mud, not blood. She spotted me standing and watching and waved happily up at me, and I found myself smiling at her almost in spite of myself. When she called me over to join her, though, I shook my head and plucked gingerly at my body wrap, which was starting to turn stiff and clammy against my skin, then pantomimed washing it. She giggled at that, and went back to her game without a care in the world.
I envied her.
Walking down the stream until the busy noise of my clan faded into the background, I found a still, deep pool. Here several of the watercourses from the cliff met and mingled their waters, before flowing together down to Big Lake. I carefully checked the surrounding undergrowth for lurking dangers, then leaned my precious spear gently against a tree. I stepped into the water and reached behind me to unfasten my wrap, letting it splash down into the pool. Naked now, I enjoyed the contrast of coolness around my legs and warmth on my back then crouched down to let the water cover me.
The creature’s blood reluctantly loosed its hold on my skin and sluiced away into the streamwater, turning the pool crimson around me. I reached over to grab my clothes, and started trying to rinse the blood out of them. My hands turned bright red, but the blood was stubborn, and I couldn’t get it out, scrub as hard as I could. There was just so much of it, blood everywhere, and it was covering me, it was all around me and I couldn’t escape from it and suddenly my hands were shaking so badly I could hardly hold onto the wrap, and I couldn’t see it for the tears that were blinding me.
I don’t know how long I crouched there, rocking backwards and forwards in the water, trembling from head to foot, shapeless terrors ghosting through my brain, until a gentle voice calling my name finally broke through my misery.
It was Mother, standing there on the bank, a world of love and concern and… regret? – shining in her eyes. She held out her arms to me, and careless of my nudity, my soaked state or my almost-adult dignity, I threw myself into them. She held me close, whispering words of comfort until my crying and shivering calmed. She told me that she was proud of me; that Father was too, and he’d only been angry because he was worried about me. I wasn’t exactly sure how that was supposed to work, but I wasn’t going to spoil things by saying so... especially since there was a bittersweet quality – a vulnerability, almost – about Mother that I didn’t remember ever seeing before. She held me at arm’s length, studying me carefully; I was shocked to realise that I was almost as tall as she was. But then she shook her head and smiled, and said “You’re not my baby anymore, Hiywan. Remember, whatever happens in the next few days, I love you, and I trust you, and I’m proud of you. We both are. Remember that.”
Of course that triggered all sorts of new questions for me, but Mother wouldn’t answer; all she’d say was that I’d know more when the time came. Then she saw the wrap I’d been trying futilely to clean, and gave me a look filled with compassion and understanding.
“There’s a… trick to getting blood out of clothing, dear. Come on, I think I’d better show you how.”
By the time we returned to camp, Kassa’s pyre was already almost ready. It was the law of our people not to delay a funeral a moment longer than necessary, because bad spirits might come and claim the body once its owner had departed. So the entire clan had turned out to collect wood, and Grandmother was conducting the rites to ensure Kassa’s soul found its way safely to Tiruneh. Rada with his family stood in sombre silence next to the pyre, and he motioned me to join them. Melesse gave me a wan but brave smile, and Rada put his hand briefly on my shoulder before turning back to watch over his brother.
Then Belaye led the funeral ritual, and thrust his torch deep into the pyre; then as custom demanded we all turned our backs on it and walked away. Next morning, when the fire had died down, Rada would return to sift through the ash and find the most intact fragments of bone to make into an amulet, so his brother’s strength and courage would not leave the clan. But now, having acknowledged Tsehay's power of death it was our duty to honour Serkalem and her gifts of life. The scent of the evening meal wafted over the breeze from the cookfire, and despite all the horror and grief of the day, I felt ravenously hungry.
Not to mention surprised. We hadn’t had chance to hunt yet since reaching Five-Trees, so where was that delicious smell coming from? The mystery resolved itself soon enough when Ariam – despite the glower of her husband – presented me with the champion’s portion, the heart of the beast. I felt mortified and horribly self-conscious in front of the gathered clan, wanting only to take my meal and scurry away to a dark corner to eat in private, but instead I had to listen to the congratulations and praise of the hunters. At least they sounded genuine, and not like they were making fun of me. However, that wasn’t the biggest of my concerns.
As I sat down next to Esyete, Assefa and Tilahun, I whispered urgently “I thought we weren’t supposed to eat demon bodies? What if we turn into monsters ourselves?” Assefa laughed, and told me he thought I’d look cute with big horns growing out of my head. He then proceeded to demonstrate, complete with gestures and sound effects, what he thought that would look like - until Esyete poked him sharply in the ribs. Tilahun, although he’d started to laugh too, quickly sobered when he saw my face, and hastened to explain. “It wasn’t a demon after all. Turns out it was just some big old buffalo or something. Still vicious, though.”
“What? That’s stupid. Buffalo don’t live in caves. And what happened to the rest of its herd?”
Tilahun shrugged. “Don’t know. Grandmother Heran checked over the corpse; apparently there were a bunch of old scars around its neck, like bite marks or whatever. My guess is it got attacked by something, maybe hyenas, and ran for shelter in the cave, then got stuck and couldn’t get out again.”
“That doesn’t make sense. If the scars were old, how long had it been in there? What did it eat?”
“Who cares? Now we’re eating it. Or at least I am. If you don’t want that, I’ll be happy to…”
“Hey, get off!” I slapped his hand away, and there was much giggling, and I forgot my worries for a while.
But a nagging feeling of uneasiness remained, and came back full force as we lay down inside the cave that night. Perhaps it was just the greater sense of space; our usual wood, earth and turf shelters were, well, cosy for a clan of 80 or so people. Here, though, we had enough room to find our own spots to sleep, spread out through the cavern; and the echoing emptiness seemed to swallow the soft sounds of breathing, snores and sighs. I shivered, not entirely from cold. But the glow of the fire in the entrance, and the pacing shadows of the sentries, reassured me; and no demons rose from the depths to claim us. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.
Next morning dawned bright and clear, and the clan was a bustle of activity, as if to shake off the ill omens of our arrival. One of the best things about moving to a new camp was always that we didn’t have to walk far to find food: we could almost just reach out the door of the shelter to gather the roots, seeds and berries to feed ourselves. That left plenty of time for story-telling, crafts and games. I watched some of the younger children playing stalk-the-buffalo: one child stood facing the cliff wall, while the others tried to creep up behind him. Every now and then he’d spin around, and the ‘hunters’ had to freeze in place. If the ‘buffalo’ saw one of them move, he’d shout and point to alert his herd and the unlucky hunter would have to go back to the starting line. Eventually, though, one of the stalkers would get close enough to strike the buffalo between the shoulders. Then there was a mad, screeching panic to escape back to the start line, while the mortally wounded buffalo tried to chase down and capture his slayers. If he managed to grab one of the hunters before he reached the safety of the line, that child had to become the new buffalo for the next round of the game.
It was good practice for the hunt, but having now faced the real thing I didn’t feel much urge to join in with the game. Instead, I decided to practice with my new spear. The precious flint blade was too fragile and valuable to risk throwing it against trees or rocks, but perhaps I could untie it and fix a plain rock of the same general size in its place as a temporary substitute, so the spear would have the same balance? I was just making up my mind to do it when the hunter Degu came running into the campsite shouting, and all thoughts of practice fled my brain.
There were strangers coming!
Belaye quickly shouted down the excited buzz of questions, and demanded a clear explanation of what Degu had seen. There was a general gasp of mingled fear and anticipation when he revealed that a crowd of over thirty hands of people was making its way down the cliff path from the Wide World into the Valley. That was twice as many as our entire clan! Were they friendly or hostile? Were they here to steal our hunting grounds, or to trade peacefully? For that matter, were they even human?
Amidst the turmoil, I was perhaps the only one to see something curious. The chieftain looked over to where Grandmother Heran sat next to the campfire, and met her eyes. She gave a tiny, almost imperceptible nod of her head, and then Belaye turned back to the milling crowd and started giving his orders. The authority in his voice soon calmed people down, and we set to work making preparations. Everybody too young, too old, too crippled or too pregnant to fight was sent into the cave; everyone else hurriedly fetched their favourite weapon and assembled on the flat area below the cliffs. Belaye ordered the warriors to gather in front, right behind him; as he made his way through the throng chivvying people into position he caught sight of me standing there cradling my new weapon. He sighed a little and shook his head, but then pointed me towards the front and said gruffly, “You too, girl. Put that spear of yours to some use.”
And so, equal parts thrilled and terrified - and not a little embarrassed at being grouped with the men - I marched at the forefront of our clan to meet the invaders.
Belaye’s plan was to confront them at the largest of the streams that emerged from the caves, which would put our warriors between the strangers and our new home. As we reached it he ordered us to spread out along the banks of the watercourse, and some of the older men nodded wisely at this. I didn’t like to draw too much attention to myself – I was secretly nervous about being ordered back to the cave with the children, and I didn’t want to miss this for the world – but Fekadu the hunter must have noticed my puzzled look and took pity on me.
He explained how an enemy wading across the stream would be slowed down, and would have to watch his feet or risk slipping on the stones; and so a warrior standing above him on the bank would have the advantage. For that reason, it made sense to block any of the strangers from getting across the stream. My eyes lit at his words; I’d given lots of thought to stalking and killing individual prey, of course, but this business of fighting large numbers of enemies at the same time was completely new to me. It seemed there was a lot I had to learn. My mind buzzed with questions, and one in particular nagged at me. What if it were the other way round? What if you were the ones having to cross the stream? When I asked Fekadu he just shrugged, and gave me a quelling glare. “You don’t. Or you find another place to cross.”
Any further questions I wanted to ask were blocked as he turned away from me, so I was left to work on the problem by myself. You couldn’t really sneak across, unless it was very foggy. Perhaps if you all rushed at once? Or if everybody ganged up on just one small group of the enemy, and tried to defeat them and get across before the rest of them could run up? Or maybe – I was getting excited now – you could throw lots of rocks at the rival tribe, and force them to back away from the edge of the stream?
But my speculation was cut brutally short as the strangers advanced around the corner of the cliff and came into full view. There really were an awful lot of them. I shivered violently, and my stomach seemed to be trying to clench itself into a fist. As they came closer I saw they were formed up much like us, with warriors in front. Not one but two chieftains strode proudly at their head, and I realised I was seeing an alliance of two clans. Such things were unheard of except in legends!
Had they come to seize our sacred places? Take us as slaves? I’d never killed a human before. I wondered if it would be different. I wondered if I’d be able to do it.
I tried very hard not to wonder if one of them would kill me.
I gripped my spear and waited as they marched up to their side of the stream.