Posted on July 12, 2005 by Monica Valentinelli
Part of an ongoing tale set in the world of Conspiracy of Shadows
Written by Monica Valentinelli
Tall, yellow grasses rustled in front of a modest Sarlacchi village, mimicking the movements of a small boy. The child pitched forward, and then rocked backward. He stopped to brace himself against an unseen foe. Something punched him hard in the stomach. Flinging his arms to the sky, the boy grasped his totem necklace and cried out before collapsing to the ground. His mother rushed to the fallen child, clutching him tightly to her breast.
“Masa, what is it?” a young, round woman asked.
“Neva, look!” The woman released her arms. Matov, her son, was dying. The boy’s face was already turning blue.
“Masa just let me take him.” Neva ignored the woman’s plea and prayed her touch alone could heal his wounds.
“Let the Old Ones try and save him.”
Neva could not let go of her son. “What did this to him?”
Masa turned her head toward the grasses that shielded their village from prying eyes. “What do you mean?”
“He was playing, and now he is not.” Neva slumped to the ground, her mouth open.
Slowly, Masa took a step away from the mother and child. Two more women, named Daza and Ansa, walked toward them. Daza, tall and hardened, was in her fall season. She was not wise in all things, but she was well on her way to learning them. Their village taught them that tragedy happened naturally; it was a part of the life cycle. Daza snorted. Most of the villagers knew that Ansa and Masa were more concerned about feeding their bellies than they were about nourishing their souls. If they didn’t change their ways, they’d never survive a harsh winter.
Masa pointed at the crumpled pair, “They have the spirit disease. Look!”
Daza peered at the huddled pair on the ground. She saw that Neva’s neck was bruised, as if an unseen hand tried to strangle her with her sacred necklace.
Daza stepped forward and commanded the pair, “We will call a Council of the Elders.”
It did not bode well for their tribe if someone walked among them that took lives for pleasure. Daza doubted that spirits were responsible for killing. The Light Twins watched over them vigilantly while their Dark Sister slept. Surely, the Great Mother would tell them if she awoke.
Masa turned to her, “During the day?”
Daza shrunk back instinctively, comforted only by her knowledge of the Raven totem that she wore about her neck. “Wait and more may fall.”
Ansa whimpered, “If the spirits can attack during the day, then no one is safe. Not even our hunters.”
Daza swallowed her laughter. Masa and Ansa were always devoted to their totems when the time was right. Maybe that was why the Village Elders chose their totems for them when they came of age instead of guiding them through the trials.
“What do we do with their shells?” Masa whispered.
Ansa shook her head. “It is up to the Elders to decide. They may want to see them.”
Daza agreed. “We should cover their bodies as if they were both sleeping. Who will ride to gather our hunters?”
Masa’s jaw tightened. “I will go.” Her youthful face sagged as she realized that stopping a hunt meant her belly might feel the pangs of hunger. She straightened herself and looked down at her full, bulging stomach. Somehow her hunger wasn’t as important as saving the village. After all, she was the only one skilled enough with a horse to go. Gingerly, she fingered her Horse totem, praying to the Light Twins to guard her on her first, important errand.
Ansa hugged her. “Ride well, Masa. Ride hard.”
* * *
A cold wind bit Masa’s face and neck as she rode. Her horse earned the name “Prairie Wind” last spring for his great speed. Prairie Wind felt Masa’s urgency, and his hooves soon flew past the village. Masa grabbed his mane and hung on, tightly. She didn’t know if Prairie Wind could sense her totem’s power, or if he felt her fears. She didn’t care.
Maza had never seen the hunt stopped. She ached to feel the warmth of a child suckling at her breast. Although she was only fifteen winters old, she was old enough to be matched to a hunter. Maza had always wanted to watch the hunters dance with their prey. None of that mattered now, only her message was important. She felt her cheeks flush as she realized all her cares came from a careless, airy place. Maza cursed under her breath and Prairie Wind sped up.
Breathless, she reached the hunting grounds and focused on finding the nearest scout. Masa crouched low to the ground, baring her backside to the open air. It was better to be hit with an arrow in her bottom than in her heart. A hand came down and spanked her, hard.
“Spying on us, Masa?” a cheerful hunter named Petrov asked.
“No, I—” she stuttered, her face flushed.
“No need to be shy.” Petrov patted her rear. “Maybe the Elders will match us together.”
Masa stood, speechless. She liked Petrov, but now was not the time to act like cats in heat. Her fury glowed white. “Petrov, Daza is calling off the hunt. Gather the men for a Council of the Elders.”
Woodenly, Masa walked back to Prairie Wind, unafraid of a rogue arrow that might fly past her. Masa grabbed the reins, mounted her horse, and kicked him as hard as she could.
* * *
At the end of the village, the Council of Elders sat naked in a long, oval house built from the materials the Great Mother offered them. Tightly-bound grasses were matted down with mud and clay. The building’s dome opened to let the Light Twins shine in. Pungent wildflowers burned in a clay-lined pit full of offerings. The smoke drifted toward the sky, as the Elders prayed and waited for a sign from the Great Mother. Their low voices ebbed and flowed in the earthen house, calming themselves and their people. The rest of the villagers danced in a circle outside the house as they chanted a prayer for protection. The sounds joined together in a flawless circle of harmony and peace.
Some old and treacherous thing whispered incantations in response to their prayers.
One Elder, named Brown Elk, knew exactly what that thing was. This was the second time in Brown Elk’s seventy-nine winters that he was afraid, and he didn’t like it anymore than he liked stale bread. Brown Elk stopped chanting, realizing that words sung without faith were like raindrops splattered on fire. He wasn’t strong enough to fight the Dark Sister alone. Fighting her was like fighting that dark place within him.
A tear stung his cheek as he felt the weight of his age crash down upon his shoulders. The Elder sitting next to him, Silver Wolf, sucked in her breath and also stopped chanting. One by one the Elders’ voices were quieted by an unseen hand. Something pushed Silver Wolf forward; she kneeled in the center of the Elders. The old woman grasped her ceremonial knife and bared her wrists to the group.
“Speak, Dark Sister. There will be no blood spilled in this holy place.”
A high-pitched scratchy voice came from Silver Wolf’s throat. “Holy? The day is also my domain old one. And I remember you!”
Brown Elk grimaced, remembering a time when he was unafraid of anything – even death. He wished he was still naïve. “I remember you as well, Dark One. I also recall a pact we once made.”
“Pact? That promise was only good if I did not make it to another.”
“Then tell me how I broke my promise,” Brown Elk said. “Maybe we can make a stronger promise.”
The scratchy voice grew louder, “Give to me what is mine and I will leave this place.”
Silver Wolf slumped to the ground as the Dark Sister escaped from her body. Soon wispy images formed in the prayer-smoke, showing Brown Elk and the others an image of a young girl with burnished red hair poised to kill an old man whose mouth was covered in blood.
Another Elder, named Slow Rabbit, spoke up. “Who are they? They are not in our tribe.”
The smoke swirled to form new images; that same young girl tied to a pole, a man drowning in a river, and of a tribal woman giving birth to a red-haired girl.
Slow Rabbit whispered under his breath. “It is our lost daughter.”
Brown Elk bowed his head, knowing what he must do. He spoke to the air.
“It will be done.”
The fire blazed, first scorching the village’s offerings, then dying down into a pile of glowing embers that vaguely resembled the red-haired young girl.
Slow Rabbit walked over to Silver Wolf to see how she fared from her attack.
“She’s barely breathing, but she will recover.”
Another Elder named Night Robin shook his head. “There’s little we can do right now.”
“What is that small thing we can do?” asked Slow Rabbit.
“Send in Daza. She will do what our old bodies cannot,” stated Brown Elk.
Night Robin walked to the house’s opening and called out for Daza. The villagers stopped dancing.
“Go back to your chores. This is village business.” Night Robin told the confused crowd.
Daza stepped into the house as she had many times before. Part of her training was to lay the offerings in the fire pit properly so that the Twins might accept them. She glanced over at her work, startled that her offerings were wholly consumed.
“Please, come and sit with us,” Brown Elk motioned to her.
Daza chose a spot so that all of the Elders could still see her face. Night Robin shone with pride. He knew she was called to follow the path of Elder.
Brown Elk sat comfortably on the ground. “I have a story to tell you, Daza. You may not like the ending, but it is a story that must be told.”
Daza nodded in response.
“Many winters ago, a woman was born in this village with fiery-red hair. We thought that she was either an omen or a witch. We named her Shadowspirit, because on the day she was born the sky was filled with dark, grey clouds.
Shadowspirit lived in our village for many winters, and grew into a beautiful, kind-hearted woman. No one touched her, even though she was kind-hearted, because they were afraid she was cursed. One winter’s day, a village hunter called Kale found Shadowspirit trying to walk on the frozen edge of a river. Her foot fell through, and the hunter pulled her free. A strong wind blew against them, forcing them to seek shelter for many nights. The hunter succumbed to Shadowspirit’s beauty. By the time spring came, the woman was full with child.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Nava asked. “Brown Elk, it has been a long time since I have sat down to hear an Elder’s story.”
He laughed deep and heartily. “That is why we chose you, Nava. Because you are not as superstitious as a bunch of us old fools.” The other Elders chimed in with their laughter.
“Kale was afraid of what we might say, so he tried to convince Shadowspirit to run away with him. Shadowspirit refused him, but she knew that he was right. She knew that we might not bless their union. Even if we blessed them, the villagers would not because of our own foolishness. Shadowspirit vowed to have her child, so she came back to the village asking me for help.”
“We convened a Council,” Brown Elk sighed, “and together we pledged her unborn life to the Dark Sister.”
Nava gasped. “You did this? But why?”
Slow Rabbit spoke, “Because we thought the Dark Sister wouldn’t hear us.”
Somewhere in the back of Nava’s mind a memory stirred. She remembered a wild man who belonged to no village. His name was…Kale…he used to bring her berries from the forest. She thought he was lonely, so she gave him a flower. He cried…
“I am that daughter. Aren’t I?”
“Yes,” Brown Elk whispered.
Silver Wolf opened her mouth, her voice weak but audible. “This was foretold long before our time. Your mother’s red hair was a sign of your future birth, nothing more.”
“Are there others, like my mother?” Nava wondered aloud.
“Yes,” Silver Wolf responded. “The Dark Sister has many children.”
Nava’s thoughts thrashed in her mind trying to make sense of what she had just learned. Somehow, she remembered her place. She may be someone’s daughter, but it didn’t mean she was no longer Nava – an Elder in training.
“The ceremony, did it mean that I am pledged to the Dark Sister?”
Slow Rabbit answered her. “To us, it was a ceremony. To the Dark Sister, it was a promise. It was a way to bind you to her. Now, she has come to ask that we make you fulfill those words from long ago.”
“But I don’t understand. How can you give me to the Dark Sister if I’m already her child?”
“We…took away your choice by performing that ceremony. It’s what the Great Mother gives all her children, even the Dark ones.”
“Are you telling me I can no longer choose who I wish to follow?”
Night Robin looked at her with kind eyes. “You must first decide who you wish to serve, through your actions. Not through voices in your head or dreams of something greater than yourself.”
“I will always serve my village, my Council, and myself.”
“There are no questions in your heart, Nava?”
“No, Night Robin,” Nava lied.
“Then say a prayer with all of us, Nava. Say a prayer not to the Great Mother, to the Twins, or to your true mother. Chant with us to find your strength. You have a long journey ahead of you.”
Nava eyes shone. “When can I meet…my mother?”
Look for Conspiracy of Shadows books at Noble Knight Games.