Saturday, August 7, 2010

Prisoner of Water: Chapter 3

On the wide, flat savannah, the wind brushed over and through the golden grasses making them sway and bow like votresses in ecstatic worship. The sky was massive and blue over the miles of gold grassland, interrupted here and there by a lone dark tree against the distant horizon. Small in the massive universe of grass were four white pavilions, flags fluttering in the wind, as sentries and guards patrolled in front of them. Within each of the pavilions sat a man facing one of the cardinal directions. All were silent. All were waiting.

The sudden fall of padded feet barely made any sound, as the invisible animal moved through the grass, cutting across savanna like an arrow. A sentry saw the distant movement of the grass against the wind coming rapidly towards them and yelled.


All four men started and looked towards the sentry, none wanting to betray their eagerness to hear the news. Rising slowly and regally they all approached the fire in the middle, walking almost as if in a ritual performance, in perfect rhythm and order. As they stood and turned to face the approaching ripple in the grass, they heard the characteristic whistle.

The next moment a large black and amber furred shape burst from the grasses and landed on its padded feet before them, its frame heaving as claws dug into the red earth. Two leather straps went around the abdomen of the large cat, meeting underneath it where a messenger was quickly unhitching herself from the harness. She rolled gracefully from the ground straight into a kneeling salute and then stood handed a small papyrus scroll to one of the men.

He read over it and his eyes widened, “Is this true?”

“What is it Ngetsu? Is it father?” asked one.

He passed the scroll around as he answered, “Yes. He’s dead.”

All four looked at each other and their eyes shone with ambition, suspicion, and fear. Ngetsu,who had spoken, asked the messenger, “Was there... did the King... did he say anything on his deathbed?”

“No, his majesty only asked for your highnesses’ sister and... cried... blaming himself for her death.” she said before catching herself and standing to attention again, “Any reply, highnesses?”

“Hmmm. Yes, you may let them know that we shall leave immediately for the palace.” spoke the shortest one . “One of the servants will provide you and your Longtooth with some meat and drink for the road.”
“Thank you sir!” she saluted and led her Longtooth as they followed a servant.

“Do you think father really did kill Nepherkiza?” spoke one of the brothers.

“Don’t be stupid! She died of the Great Pestilence. Everyone died of the Great Pestilence. Father’s mind has deserted him in his old age and upon his death bed.” answered another with a snort.

“Do not dishonor the memory of the dead.” rebuked the shortest one.

As the now provisioned Runner and her Longtooth came back, she stopped and spoke, “If I may be so bold, highnesses, I don’t know if this will matter at all, but before the King passed, I heard he signed a scroll with his signet and in his blood.”

As she slid under the Longtooth, the clicking of the latches on her uniform into the harness echoing in the stunned silence, she gave a loud whistle and the Longtooth leapt into the sea of waving grass and was gone. The four still stood there in silence, contemplating, the sudden rush of anxiety upon them. Finally, the oldest, Ngetsu spoke.

“So... there is a will after all.”


Anai and Josten were running down the trail towards the village, both beaming like the morning sunshine on the snow. They halted midway down the trail to catch their breaths as they watched the long line of people climbing like a snake up the mountain. The line went all the way from the trail at the pass, up the zigzagging staircase carved into the living stone, to the very top where the village gate stood. The gate was two large pillars with a chord stretched between them from which hung colorful pieces of cloth that fluttered in the air. The people passing under would reach up and touch the cloth as a way of blessing the village.

“Wow, there are so many. It seems like each year the celebration just gets bigger!” Anai said, looking over all the people, thinking of the responsibility she would have someday to keep them all safe.

“Yeah, do you remember the year when we hid all of the masks and replaced them with plates.” Josten laughed merrily, at the memory.

“As I recall, you did that and we both got in trouble for it!” Anai said, giving him a playful push, “And grandmother thought at first that it was some terrible sign of an avalanche or something.”

“Hahaha! Yes! I remember! They were even thinking of moving the village!” Josten smiled looking down on all the families and old friends meeting and greeting each other in the snow, playful snow fights already erupting spontaneously between children and adults alike.

“Josten, come here. I have something for you.” Anai said, with her hands behind her back.

“Okay.” he said somewhat apprehensive.

“Close your eyes and lean your head forward.” Anai tried to suppress a wicked grin as he did so, puckering his lips.

She grab a handful of his black hair, giving it a playful tug, before separating it into six strands. With a couple of quick movements she had woven a thin braid, and using the six tips she made an strange knot that made the end of the braid look like a raindrop. It dangled down beside Josten’s ear, reaching down to just below his chin.

“There.” she said, satisfied with her work.

“What is it?” Josten asked, turning it over in his hand.

“Grandmother taught it to me. She said its a charm to keep what’s dear to you safe. See, I have one too.” she said, pulling back some of her hair on the side of her head like a veil, revealing a similar braid and knot. “It was the first knot grandmother taught me. And she said she would teach me another today before the ceremony!”

“Speaking of which, we’re gonna be late if we don’t start moving again. Bet I’ll beat you down to the village!” he said, starting a swift jog down the mountain trail.

Anai laughed and ran after him, jumping on his back and letting him carry her down. She yelled as he spun them around in circles, almost falling off the mountain. When they reached the bottom, Anai ran to her house to get ready for the ceremony, while Josten went to join the other villagers, who were all now pushing snow around and forming mounds and balls of snow, amidst more snowball fights. Meanwhile the line of people was still continuing to move up the stairway.

At the bottom of the stairway, the mists had come up all the way from the pass. It started moving, growing denser, thicker, going from a haze to a thick, billowing cloud like form that churned and seemed to condense and grow solid into the form of a figure. It stepped from the mists, resembling an attractive woman in a brown traveling mantel with the hood thrown over her face, pale milky white skin peaking from between the folds here and there. She smiled, revealing rows of sharp teeth as she walked up the trail and joined the rear of the group walking up the stairs.

The villagers above had formed twenty large mounds of snow, each with a large snowball on top of it. There was loud cheering as the village masksmith, a large man whose ebony skin stretched thin over his massive, rippling frame, shone with exertion as he carried out a massive flat board. On it was laid a ceremonial cloth, upon which lay three ancient carved stone masks. Behind him followed his apprentices, each carrying a mask they had made. At the end of the line walked Josten, smiling broadly as he carried the mask with its cracked, sticky seam. Masksmiths form other villages also stepped forward, until eighteen figures total stood before the large mounds of snow.

The drums started beating out their steady rhythm as all eyes turned to the other side of the village. There emerging from the nearest hut was the old woman, and her granddaughter, Anai. The old woman was dressed in her simple thick brown mantel, her grey-blue hair falling in a mass of tresses and braids behind her, all culminating in special knots. Behind her, Anai followed, looking nervous as she tried to smile and seem dignified all at the same time as they passed through the crowd of cheering people. Anai wasn’t dressed in the usual oiled leather that everyone wore to keep the wetness of the snow out. Instead she wore the ceremonial garb of the wisewoman, layers and layers of intricately woven wool with beads throughout.

Her hair was made to frame her head perfectly, the long side tresses all braided into small thin braids that were gathered together into large bundles like wheat sheeves on either side of her face. The hair from her crown going to her forehead was similarly braided and cut so that the ends come just level with her eyebrows. In the back, all her luscious hair was woven into one large braid, terminating in a large teardrop shaped knot. The sun fell on her features, highlighting the lines of red in her deep brown hair, gleaming on her smooth, dark complexion, her deep blue eyes sparkling.

The old woman was watching her granddaughter with a heavy heart. The bright shining eyes, the beaming smile. She knew what her granddaughter had planned. She knew the announcement that Anai was going to make once the Elders arrived. She also knew that today would not go according to anyone’s plans. Forcing herself to step forward, despite her heavy heart, she raised her hands and all the people were silent, waiting to hear what the wisewoman had to say.


Kiza watched the black bound body fall into the pool and sink in a flurry of bubbles. The heavy amulets tied along the various chords would make sure that it went all the way to the bottom of the pool. According to tradition, she began to cry, the forced tears stinging the sides of her eyes as she wailed,

“The chief has passed! He has passed into the water!”

The other mourners took up the cry, repeating the wailing chant as she continued.

“He has passed the mirrored veil to the other world!
Now he will dwell with the spirits of water!
Now he will sleep in the palace of the Water Goddess!”

All the mourners then followed suit as Kiza lowered herself to her knees, her long black woolen robe folding underneath her. Then throwing her head back and raising her arms, she sent out another soul piercing wail, and threw her body forward, like a tree in the wind. Back and forth, the bowing and wailing continued, the rows and rows of mourners following suit, the cadence of wailing woodwinds and tinkling cymbals making the mourning ritual seem almost like a dance.

The mourners continued, while Kiza stood up and slowly walked by Zuma, who had been watching her from the shadows the entire time, relishing the emotional performance. As she passed him, she ran her hands through her hair seductively. He leaned forward just in time for the flip of her hair to smack him through the face. A taunt and insult that said she knew he was watching the whole time. And that they both knew thats all he could ever do.

Zuma watched her go, his hand straying to his cheek, as he carefully went over all his plans. He did not care if she was stubborn or spirited. A figure dressed completely in black with veiled black face and black gloved hands appeared like smoke from the shadows.

“Has everything been taken care of, Shekmet?” he asked without turning.

“Yessss, massster.” the wheezing, oily voice answered from the darkness, “All the ssservantssss and attendantssss loyal to the other lordsss have been... taken care of.”

“I hope you didn’t kill all of them! That might raise suspicion.” Zuma said cooly.

“Pleasss, massster. Do not inssssult usss. We know many other wayssss of making men sssssssilent.” and with that the shadow man disappeared into the smokey shadows again.

Zuma looked out at the sun getting lower in the sky. It would be nearly evening when the four would arrive. That would be good because Zuma always enjoyed deceit more at night. It felt deeper, colder, thicker. And all of his plans would come down to this one masterful piece of treachery, to this one night.

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