Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Prisoner of Water: Chapter 2

The village of Djarmond lay in silent slumber as the sun’s light was slowly infusing the cool world with colour. It had breached the summits of the far mountains and cast its golden beams upon the mountain above the village. The line separating day from night was slowly advancing down the mountainside. Ordinarily, the village would be bustling with activity by now, however today was a special day. It was the return of the Elders. The last week had been spent in a hurry of activity: harvesting the sweet, sticky inner bark from the trees to make cakes and breads, hunting the large mountain boars and curing the meat, gathering firewood and carrying it from the lower steppes of the mountain, and building igloos to lodge the many guests from the other villages that were already making the journey to Djarmond. But now everything was ready for the celebration, and the village lay in well earned rest before the arrival of the guests.

But unknown to the peaceful sleepers, a figure moved in the shadows of the houses. Moving slowly, each well placed step descending carefully to minimize the crunch of fresh snow, the figure crept forth, its features obscured by the grey mantel it wore. Sharp eyes glanced from within the dark hood at the sound of a snow swallow nearby. After waiting, the figure continued its slow approach, eyes trained on the next house in its path.

It was no different from any of the other buildings, a round cylindrical structure built of massive ice blocks, with a cone shaped roof made of long wooden poles bent towards the top, oiled hides stretched tightly over the frame, and a fire flap at the side. However, what made this structure different was that instead of regular oiled hide over the door, it had a thickly embroidered cloth hanging as the door instead. He crept towards the doorway and slid inside, so effortlessly and quickly not even a breath of wind could get in with him.

The interior of the house was dark and humid from the sleeping body. Not overly ornamental, it had a floor of frozen, oiled wooden boards covered with firs, a low kneeling table with some cosmetic paints and wooden rings and a bowl of water for seeing one’s reflection. At the other side was a chest, probably with changes of clothes in it. And close to the center where the hearth would normally be blazing, was the sleeping form of the girl, wrapped in her many layers of blankets.

He walked forward, pulling the hood from his face to reveal a wooden mask, carved in the likeness of a man smiling eerily and broadly. He had reached the bed when he slid his hand into the mantel and found the secret pocket within. Nimble fingers wrapped around the handle as he pulled it out from its hiding place. He raise his hand high.

Then it descended quickly before it made solid impact.

“BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!” the drum sang out underneath his hard pounding with the drumstick.

The girl’s eyes snapped open with a yell of terror as she rolled over and grabbed a large log from the remains of the previous evening’s fire.

“Josten! You idiot! Whats wrong with you!” she yelled angrily, throwing the stick at him.

“Hahahaha. Easy there.” he said, side-stepping the thrown stick, “You nearly got me that time.”

“Next time I won’t miss!” she said angrily as she rolled over, gathering another layer of her blankets. “Why are you here anyway? Couldn’t you wait for a morning when I wasn’t dead tired from a week of hard work?!”

“Well, I could have but then you wouldn’t be the first to see my mask!” he said, pulling the mask from his face to hold it out to her, revealing his own bright smile accompanied by two deep dimples in his tan face. “What do you think?”

“Its really nice, Josten. But really, could’t it have waited just a bit?” she sighed, rolling her eyes and rolling her body over to try to get more sleep.

“Well, I guess it could have...” he said as he saw her close her eyes again, “but then, you wouldn’t have known that you’re late for the sunrise ceremony.”

Her eyes snapped open in true terror this time, “What!?! Josten! Why didn’t you say something sooner! I’m late! Get out! Get out, out, out! I have to get ready! I have to get dressed! Wait, stop, come back! How high is the sun? Nevermind. It doesn’t matter. Why did you come back? I said get out!”

In the volley of commands and hysterics, Josten found himself pushed out of the doorway forcefully. Inside the clamor of breaking dishes and falling furniture could be heard. He walked back towards the doorway and called in.

“Better hurry up, the sun’s already past the cave.”

Her reply was the makeshift weapon fire-log she had wielded before, flying through the doorflap and knocking him back into the snowbank outside the house. He sat up and shook snow form his thick black hair. Then, suddenly realizing that he was missing something, he began digging through the snow around him frantically before he sat down and heard a loud crack.

“Ah! My mask!”


Kiza walked down the long hallway, gleaming allebaster cool and distant, just like her soul. At least, thats what she told herself. She slid into the antechamber of the wailing room, devoid of any people for now, though soon to be overrun with mourners preparing for the funeral rites of the dead chief. A shiver ran over her skin, and she felt her stomach tying in knots at the thought of her dead grandfather. She tried rubbing the feeling out of her arms, crouching low and tucking her knees to her chest.

“Just breathe. Breathe.” she said to herself, her voice sounding small and empty.

She stood, drawing deep breaths as she clenched her fists and jaws, willing herself to be strong. It was not her fault. She could not have stopped it even if she tried. And she did try. She had stood up. But Zuma could not be beat. No. He could be. And she was going to be the one to beat him.

“Soon, Zuma. Very soon. Then you won’t have control over me anymore. I will never let you use me again.” she said fiercely, the sick feeling dying down and being replaced by anger.

She quickly slid the stained white gown that had belonged to her aunt from her copper toned skin as if shedding a shell. At the other end of the dim room the rough, black wool robes were sitting, folded carefully with the pungent smell of autumn leaves seeped into the very fibres. She pulled it over her head, careful of her luscious black hair in its many braids. Meticulously she slipped the golden beads off the ends of her braids and replaced them with ebony ones, while her golden hooped earrings and necklace were also placed on the side. Finally, walking to the other end, she washed her face with the lotus water, all the gold dust and cosmetics bleeding away.

She looked at herself in the polished steel surface. Gone was the bright and beautiful face that was the envy of the court. Now she looked plane and ordinary, not particularly beautiful or stunning.

“Highness, are you decent?” spoke the voice behind the curtain.

“Yes, Ismes. And you don’t have to call me Highness.” she spoke looking in the mirror at the man who slid from the shadows.

“Are you alright, Highness?” he spoke, brows knit in concern. “I heard that Chancellor Zuma-”

“I’m fine. Thank you.” she said, smiling to relieve the concern of her personal body guard.

Stepping forward, his face still showing concern he said, “Your father should hear about this. If he knew-”

“If my father knew he would grow concerned for my safety. He would sequester me back in the palace in Belotha and then where would we be? My father thinks himself clever but Zuma is infinitely more devious. If I get locked away in a palace then Zuma wins.” she spoke resolutely. “He can’t win. I am not about to let him.”
“You have a plan?” he asked, his dark features raising quizzically.


“Hurry up Josten!” she yelled as she ran up the trail that led form the village up the mountainside to a small, wooded plateau.

“Slow down, Anai! You still have plenty of time!” he yelled after her, gasping for breath.

“Josten! Look at where the sun is! We have to be up in the clearing before it gets there! Come on!” she ran further. “And be careful with my drum!”

“Alright, alright. Sheesh.” he mumbled as he adjusted the large drum on his back and trudged along.

As they finally made it to the small wooded steppe above the village, a wave of snow swallows took to the air, causing curtains of snow to dislodge from the bare branches of the trees. The trees were perpetually leafless with green, iridescent bark instead. Here and there, a section of the green bark was cutback to the deep red heartwood of the trees, where the thick, sticky sap was oozing forth from where they had recently been harvested. Josten stopped and gathered large gobs of the sap on a twig.

“Josten! Where did you get to? We don’t have time to waste!” she called.

“Coming!” he yelled.

She was in a clearing at the edge of a cliff face overlooking the village below and with the cave above. The sunlight was sparkling in the top most branches, the line moving closer and closer. Josten swept some of the fresh snow away from a large stone and placed the drum on it. On either side of the stone large trees loomed over while their branches met and were intricately woven into each other.

“Alright. I’m ready.” she said resolutely.

“Are you sure? This is your first time doing this on your own. What if you do something wrong?” Josten said jokingly.

“Haha. Very funny. You can go wait over there under the trees.” she said, smiling secretly, grateful for his teasing which helped to alleviate her anxiety.

She took a deep breathe and closed her eyes. Raising her hand over her head, she exhaled as her hand descended fast and hard, her eyes opening with intensity. The loud smack of her hand on the drum echoed throughout the mountains, rebounding off the massive glacial structures. A second blow, then a third. And soon a complex beat and rhythm was bouncing and rebounding over the steppes as the sun’s light touched where she was standing, lighting the archway formed by the trees and the snow around her with a pure light that shone like a million diamonds on the fresh snow.

While she continued drumming, other drums began answering in the surrounding mountain passes and trails, where the people from the other villages on the Djarmond mountains were close to reaching the village of Djarmond below. Josten pulled his mask, snapped in half, from within his mantel, and began applying the sticky sap to the broken edge. He stuck the remainder of the sweet sap covered twig in his mouth as he carefully aligned the two edges and held them in place till the makeshift adhesive had taken hold.

Holding up the mask in triumph, he tried yelling victoriously, only to find his jaws stuck together. He put the mask down and began pulling hard at the stick in his mouth. Working with his jaws as well, he managed to loosen it enough to pull it out and disengage his teeth. But the momentum carried him backward in the snow, and caused him to stumble back into the tree. He called out but it was too late.

“Anai!” the shaking tree dropped its heavy load of snow all over her. “...sorry.”

She simply sat there with her back still turned to him. Josten grew cautiously fearful. She was just sitting there with her hands in front of her, slightly shaking. Was she crying? Had he hurt her? He ran up apologizing again.

But before he had cleared the distance between him and her, a whizzing snowball flew through the chilly air and exploded in his face, knocking him back. She was not crying, but laughing as she rolled another snow ball.

“You are so lucky that I was done with my drumming!” and another snow ball flew.

“Hahaha. Next time I’ll work on my timing.” he yelled running between the trees, throwing snow balls back towards her.

“Next time? Ha!” she laughed as she chased after him, diving over fallen trees and sliding down gullies as she threw her own snow balls towards him, “I’m never brining you with me again!”

Josten dove over a snow bank, rolled over a fallen log and crouched behind it, pulling several branched over him for cover. He began making snow balls, readying to release a volley when Anai cleared the bend. He waited, breathing hard, his tan cheeks red and flushed with exertion.

“Waiting for me?” He heard her voice behind him.

With a forceful push she dislodged all the snow on the branched above him, burying him in the snow. He leapt out and pulled her down towards the deep snow bank, but as she hit the snow, she shifted her weight with the momentum and pulled him down into the snowbank too. The two of them rolled down the snowy incline before reaching the bottom, laughing until their sides hurt.

“Well, you did a pretty good job today. I guess I’ll allow you to become the new wisewoman next year.” Josten spoke, laying next to her in the snow.

“Why thank you. I’m glad to have your blessing.” she said, rolling over onto her stomach, resting her elbows on the snow and her chin in her hands.

There was a pensive silence before she spoke again, “You know, everything will change.”

“Yeah, I know.” he said sitting up, looking up towards the woods, then back at her.

“I won’t be able to play like this anymore. I’ll have to tend to my duties. Up in the cave.” Anai said drawing patterns in the snow.

“Your thinking about the binding, aren’t you?” he said looking at her, “That once you take the mantel you must either already be married or never marry at all.”

“Yes.” she answered, looking at the snow. “It always seems so far off, like there was still so much time. But now. Now its so close I can taste it.”

There was silence as the two sat there, watching a lone snow swallow fly from one tree to the next before disappearing inside the woods. Josten cleared his throat, as if about to say something, then stopped, and repeated the process.

“What?” she asked raising an eyebrow.

“Well, Anai, have you ever thought that maybe we should.... get married?” Josten said, turning very quickly as his face turned bright red.

“What?” Anai said almost in shock.

“Nothing. Um. Hey, did you see where I dropped my mask? It was somewhere over here I think.” he said quickly getting up and starting to run towards the woods.

But Anai caught him first, jumping on him and embracing him firmly as she cried, “Forget the stupid mask! Yes! If you’re offering, then yes!”

Beaming his wide smile he said, “Well, I didn’t offer exactly now did I.”

She smiled back at him and said, “I’m not really giving you the choice anymore, am I?”

“But wait, to make an engagement official we need....” Josten started.

“Already ahead of you!” Anai called out running towards the clearing.

She bent down and scooped snow together, forming it into a small heap, pressing it into a round mound with a small snowball on top. Then taking a twig she slowly drew a specific pattern of interlocking lines over it. Meanwhile, Josten had torn a piece of green bark from a tree and punched three holes in it, making a small, rough mask. Then he placed the mask on the small snowball on the mound.

“There, its finished.” Josten said.

“Oh no! Look at the sun! We can’t be late!” Anai said pulling Josten up.

The two ran hand in hand from the clearing as the strange lines and marks on the snow began to glow faintly with blue light.


The mist had reached the pass that led to the valley. Ahead a small band of villagers from a distant village were trying to catch up to the main body of the procession making its way up towards Djarmond. A small boy dropped his ball, which rolled down the incline of the path and disappeared in the mist. He slowed his run as he reached the omnious mist. Suddenly the ball rolled back up to him. He picked it up and ran to catch up to his family. The mist had stopped its ascent, as the last of the shadowy figures were gathering in its center, readying for what was to come.

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