Sacred Dance: Chapter 2

It was not long after this that the people of the Gorob heard from the Misré that the giants had entered the forest. The people gathered together in the clearing in the shadow of the tree that was called Watcher of the Woods, where Awab sat on the ground near his father and mother with his eyes shut, letting his mind drift. No one was speaking. This was the time for reflection before the debate began. He opened his eyes again and saw Orʉk staring at him from several feet away. Awab smiled at him, and Orʉk walked away.

The silence was broken when old Wav̱upad clapped his hands and chanted, “Speak, children, open your mouths! Speak of how our feet shall lead us.” The people sang in response with wordless tones until the forest rang with their melody. When at last the sound died away, Wav̱upad said, “We are here to discuss the news that Xelʉmba brings and what it means for our trade with the giants.” He looked to Xelʉmba, giving him his cue to speak.

Xelʉmba stood, looking over the crowd with sharp wariness. Half-wild, without a family, he spoke with no regard for rhetoric or persuasive tone. “I’ve been among the Misré,” he said, his eyes darting from person to person. “They speak more with the giants than we do. You know how they’ve adopted giantish ways and even give some of their daughters to be their brides. One of these women returned and told a sad tale of her husband, how he’d been killed in battle against a rival tribe of giants. She said that many chiefs have been overthrown and new chiefs raised in their place, chiefs who are not necessarily friends to the children of the forest.

A few days ago some of the giants came to the edge of the forest! They brought things to trade like they always have, millet and honeygem and things like that. But now they bore new marks on their faces, patterns like the wings of a bird. They talked about a new master, a powerful ruler among the red gods. They told us their master wanted more than we used to give. He wanted living men and women, and they wouldn’t say why, either. I told the Misré they should send the traders away with empty hands, but they didn’t listen to me, no they didn’t! I fear that they’ll purchase their honeygem now with human souls. But the giants are coming here too, and I wonder what we’ll say to them when they arrive.”

Awab shut his eyes to think this over. He heard a woman on the other side of the clearing wail a single time. Then he heard Orʉk’s voice and frowned to himself. “But if we deny the giants what they want,” Orʉk was saying, “what do you think they will do to us? Will they leave us alone if we simply rebuff them? What do you say, Xelʉmba? Did they threaten the Misré?”

Oh, they did, they certainly did. But not with violence or power, only that they’d stop bringing us trinkets and food. We can live without the giants. We can wait for a new master to show up. Not all the red gods are this cruel.”

All giants are cruel,” said Orʉk.

It is so,” Af̱arad said, rising to his feet, towering over the rest of them, though he was certainly no giant. “We cannot trust the giants to keep their word. We all know they have enough power in their little fingers to burn our homes and drive us into savagery, so that we are no better than chimpanzees. We may pretend it is otherwise, but we are in their hands.”

Awab knew many of the others had to be sharing his thoughts, that if Af̱arad the bold counseled submission, what hope could they have? But though Xelʉmba’s news was far worse than he had expected, he wasn’t ready to give in yet. He considered what he could say while he waited for his elders to have their say. But a hush had fallen over the clearing, and Awab decided it was time for him to speak. He lifted up his voice and said, “Listen to me! We are debating what we should do, but we have not yet heard what the giants want with our own ears. We have not yet seen the giants with our own eyes. Xelʉmba alone has seen them, and he says we should reject their offers. Why not trust him over the fancies of our minds?”

He was happy to see the way Elʉv̱u was gazing at him, but tried to keep his mind on the deliberation of the tribe. There would be time for him to impress Elʉv̱u later. The next to speak was Orʉk again; he spoke quickly and fiercely. “Awab is clever, but he will catch himself in his own trap if he isn’t careful. We know the red gods! We know the giants! What more do we need to know? I will grant him this much, at least. Should the giants appear before us and prove weaker than ever before, then we can listen to him again, but if the power of the red gods follows them, we risk death and the death of our families and our spirits. I do not treat the giants lightly. Nor should any of us.”

But all who had spoken so far were younger sons of the tribe. The elders, who had remained silent to this point, now began to whisper among themselves, until Bodtebv himself rose, leaning on his cane. “You have all spoken with honey on your tongues, and I applaud you. One thing is certain: the giants will come. They will offer us things we need and cannot do without. Xelʉmba and Awab propose that we reject them as quick as the wind. Orʉk proposes that we are right to be afraid, and we should submit in fear. I perceive that both Orʉk and Awab have recommended waiting until our foe comes into view, and I agree with them in this. Perhaps they will be less, or more, than we fear. Perhaps we will be able to bargain with them and avoid giving up the souls of our children.”

Orʉk bowed his head. “The word of the elders is wise.” There was murmured agreement among the crowd, and Awab understood that Bodtebv and the elders had taken control of the debate. He, too, bowed and made some respectful remarks emphasizing his own argument, in the hope of influencing the later decision, but for now it was clear that they would wait and see.

When Bodtebv had dismissed the council and Awab was going with the other young men and women to carry the baskets of food into the clearing for the feast, Orʉk stepped into place beside him and nudged his shoulder. “Listen, Awab. Stay away from Elʉv̱u. She’s not yours. You understand?”

She isn’t yours, either,” said Awab, trying to keep his voice quiet, though Orʉk made no such effort. Orʉk was bold and loud, but utterly silent during the hunt, and so many of the maidens were in love with him that if they had their own way, he would have more wives than Daw̱a himself. Awab hoped that Elʉv̱u at least was not among the smitten.

What do you know about her? She doesn’t love you, I can tell you that. Leave her alone.” And Orʉk went on ahead, baskets swaying on his broad shoulders.

Awab sat with his family as they ate, but stung by Orʉk’s words, he kept an eye on Elʉv̱u. She was laughing with her grandfather, and as Awab looked at her he decided that it was too risky to delay any longer. He stood and went to her; she smiled up at him with a sly look in her eyes. “What honeyed words will you drop in my ear?” she asked.

I have promises to give and admiration to offer. Do those things sound sweet to you?”

Oh, they do. Please go on.”

Her grandfather reached out and tapped on Awab’s knee. “Be careful, boy. Too much honey can catch in the throat.” But Elʉv̱u seemed to enjoy Awab’s flattering words, and her face lingered in Awab’s memory long after he said his good-byes and returned to his family’s tent. Despite the calls for a sacred dance, the elders had declared the council too brief to warrant such a conclusion, and so it had merely ended, as one by one they went off to their own homes.

Over the next few days Awab continued to pursue Elʉv̱u, and she was by no means unreceptive, gazing at him and laughing at his jokes. Much of his time, however, he spent as one of the sentries on the fringes of Gorob, waiting for the giants to arrive. It was a tedious enough task, but Awab could simply sit and watch for the better part of a day, his mind utterly still, and not grow weary.

Then at last he heard the sound of a signal drum beating out its message: “The giants are here; the giants are coming.” It came from the northeast, the direction where Orʉk was standing watch. Awab ran back towards the village, slipping through the forest with hardly a sound. He reached the village moments after Af̱arad, but there was no need for either of them to say anything. Immediately the people began to prepare to go and meet the traders as they had in the past, bringing out baskets of meat and dried fruit and frames holding skins and rainbows of bird feathers. Others readied poisoned arrows but kept them in their quivers, bows slack at their side, lest they seem to be aggressive. The giants were quick to strike if alarmed.

Awab himself held a dead and scaled pangolin in one hand and a bowl of honey in the other, given to him by Votli. He was near the front of the procession that made its way in Orʉk’s direction, filing down the path to the river. He was aware of the giants long before he saw them, of course. The feel of the air and the sounds of the animals were different, and soon the giants’ voices drifted through the trees, words in that language which always reminded Awab of birds chattering.

They came out from the forest into the bright open space by the river, where the giants were standing by their boat, and Awab looked at them intently. He recognized none of their faces, nor the red sashes they wore over their shoulders, but they brought with them the usual pots and pieces of honeygem.

Our Lord in Sa Rúh sends us, as is the custom of these lands,” one of the giants said, revealing his sharp teeth. The giants were standing on the riverbank like a wall of posts, immobile in face and body, not at all like the cheerful if overbearing giants who had always come before. There were more scars and tattoos on their faces and bodies, forming strange patterns.

Xelʉmba strolled forward and held out his hands with a grin. “We welcome you to the forest. See what we have to offer! Enough, I should hope, to satisfy any desire. The forest is fruitful, and what is more,” but he was interrupted by the nearest of the giants.

What we desire is not animal flesh. The Lord of Sa Rúh demands one man and one woman. Then we will give you all this honeygem. See what we have to offer.”

And if we refuse?” asked Xelʉmba. Hands went to bows, but moved no further.

Word of the Lord of Sa Rúh has taken a long time to reach you, so we will forgive your impudence. The Lord of Sa Rúh is not a mortal hunter like one of your great men. The Lord of Sa Rúh is a god. He is your god now, and you will obey.”

The speaker held up his hand with palm downward. The ground seemed to shift under Awab’s feet, and a shadow passed briefly over his vision. When he could see again, the forest was gone: he and the others were standing up to their knees in water. The sun was shining brightly down on them, filling the air with light. Awab turned slowly to look around, but as far as he could see there was only water and sun. A few of the others began to wail, but Orʉk cried, “Very well! If we must, we must,” and no one objected, not even Xelʉmba.

The sun dimmed, and they were in the forest once again. The giant said, “Don’t think you can give us your weak, your old, your outcasts. The Lord Sa Rúh demands only those held in honor among you.”

No!” said Ralavut suddenly.

He had an arrow to his bow, and he was soon joined by others, but the giants didn’t flinch. Their leader spoke in a voice as deep as the river itself. “Open,” he said, and the ground changed under Awab’s feet, filling with water until his feet began to sink. Others sank faster, despite their attempts to crawl free. Ralavut was gone in a few blinks of Awab’s eyes, and only when Ralavut’s cries had faded were the others able to pull themselves to safety.

Him!” Orʉk said, pointing to Awab. “Take him! He is wise and strong!”

Awab, stunned by the show of the red gods’ power, was slow to react. He only understood what was happening when the others stepped away from him. Of course they would: he had spoken against the giants. Even though another voice won out in the end, Awab’s counsel would have been disastrous, and now he was to be punished for it. The giants were carrying cords now and walking towards him, and he froze. A voice in his head told him to run off into the trees, but surely the giants would find him. Fear and despair kept him from moving until the strong hands of the giants were on him, binding him with the cords and pulling him away. He could not move.

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