Sacred Dance: Chapter 19

Kifson leaned back upon his stool and signaled for Paggul to bring him the lion-headed staff. He toyed with it as he looked them over, then pounded it into the ground until it stuck fast. “You,” he said to Scaka. “You are a brave man, but you are a fool. But you don’t know who you are?”

“I remember nothing before three years ago,” Scaka said.

“I sent messengers to my brothers in other tribes. Maybe one of them will be able to bring your memories back to you.” Scaka bowed in the fashion of the Duri court, his head touching the ground, and Kifson smiled. “My daughter is outraged that you interrupted her sacrifice. She and many of my people. They want you to be victims of the Shadow. But I think maybe you can set us free. You!” he called to Nasari. “You know the gods. I slept with this staff under my head and the Lion visited me in my dream. He said to me, ‘The foreign priestess will bring me back.’ So I ask you, will you bring the Lion back?”

“I will,” Nasari said. “That’s why I’m here.”

“And you! Dwarf! I suppose you’re mixed up in sorcery too. But I have no special word for you.” Paggul whispered in Kifson’s ear, and Kifson shrugged. “Maybe, maybe. I give you three days. Take your staff again. Take the Shadow’s idol and take it to the great baobab. It will come to you and maybe you will defeat it. But maybe it will defeat you. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Scaka. “And we will overthrow the Shadow.”

“Maybe, maybe,” Kifson repeated, and waved them away.

Paggul, sourer of countenance than ever, led them to the east side of the hill and pointed out across the trees to a lone baobab in the middle of a circular clearing. “The aroma of his food lingers there, and he will awaken if you bring him. But please don’t let Kifson give you any false hope. If you face him again, you will die, staff or no staff, magic or no magic. I’d offer you my help carrying the idol, but I’d rather not die with you.”

He left them, and Awab took a deep breath, smelling the air. This village stank of cattle, enough to clog his nostrils, but a sudden wind came from the direction of the baobab, carrying with it something that eluded all his attempts to give it a name.

Nasari started to speak, but a sharp voice interrupted her. “Do what I hear? He send you to fight the Shadow? Why? Why? Why?” It was Dormil storming towards them, her black dress flapping around her legs. “You die!”

“I thought you wanted me to die,” said Scaka mildly. “Anyway, I’d rather me die than you.”

Her brow furrowed. “I don’t hear well, but I think you are silly. To you I am a stranger, yes? Why you die?”

Cintiryc kancatle ihyc kanufle,” said Scaka. She stared at him, then whirled around and walked away. Scaka took a deep breath and said to the others, “Shall we get started?”

Nasari tapped her staff on the ground. “Yes, and as soon as possible. Do you think you’ll be able to carry the idol?”

“I haven’t dared touch it yet, but we’ll see,” said Scaka and went off towards the hut where the idol sat.

“And what will I do?” Awab asked. “I have neither courage nor magic. I’m just a simple dwarf.”

“The gods know you, Awab, and they have a purpose for you. I don’t think they’ll let you die so soon,” Nasari told him. “Come with us and see what this Shadow is made of. But we should go help Scaka with the idol.”

They found Scaka with a few of the local giants, who had brought a sledge and an ox to draw it. He was arguing with them, and as Awab came within earshot he heard Scaka shout, “Taha, taha.” Scaka stepped over to the idol and with a great effort lifted it and heaved it onto the sledge. He waved the other giants away and greeted Nasari and Awab wearily. “You see, Kifson gave us a little help.”

“Good. This will make things much easier.”

They set out down the hill, leading the ox and its burden along a well-trodden path through the trees. Awab stopped once or twice to look at the wooden figures that were hanging in the branches, as they stared back at him with great painted eyes. There was an odd metallic taste to the air that grew stronger as they proceeded. Being surrounded by the trees should have comforted him, reminding him of his home, but they were too sparse and dry.

As they approached the lone baobab, the ox shied away, finally refusing to walk any further. “I wonder if we’re close enough for this to work,” Scaka said. Awab’s sympathies were firmly with the ox, but he forced himself forward to the tree and ran his hand along its bark. His foot brushed something and he looked down to see skeletal fingers protruding from the ground at the base of a root.

“They kill people here, don’t they? I wonder how many are buried beneath us,” he said, gazing back up at the tree’s immense trunk.

“Enough to call forth a demon,” Nasari said. Awab glanced at her wrist, but it was still as dark as ever. At least she had her staff and the power of the Lion, he reminded himself. “So! If you’re here, Shadow of the Leftan, show yourself! If you want human flesh to feed upon, here we are.”

Again Awab’s foot brushed the hand, and he tried to step away but found himself unable to move his leg. The bones of the fingers had curled to wrap around his foot. With an effort he pulled away, and just as he did the ground gave way where he had been standing, revealing a pitch-black expanse below, the mouth of the cavern nestled between two roots.

“I must live.” The voice entered his head without sound, taking over his thoughts. “I must hold breath within me; I must wear the flesh of living mankind. Come and feed me.”

Awab felt a deep fatigue settle over him, with a desire to simply fall forward into the abyss and rest. The numbness was heaviest in his foot where the bones had touched him. He felt for a shocking moment as if he was in a dream and ready to slip back into deeper sleep, but he heard Nasari calling to him and managed to clear his head. He ran back from the tree, passing Nasari and Scaka and even the idol, where the ox was becoming increasingly distressed yet seemed rooted to the ground. Panic overwhelmed him, and he could think of nothing but escaping into the acacia trees, away from the black shadow.

It was not until he reached the edge of the clearing around the baobab that he thought better. He was trembling as he turned around to see Nasari and Scaka between him and the great tree, and he hesitated for a shameful moment. But though they were giants, he’d been with them too long to abandon them here. He would fight with them as he would with his brothers in Gorob.

Nasari stepped forward to the pit and pounded her staff on the edge. “The Leftan are the Lion’s servants, not yours. Go back to the depths of the earth and do not return!”

Awab had a sense of distant amusement. His eyes caught movement in the lower branches of the tree, then creatures began to fall to the ground, things that resembled the wooden figures of the forest but moved like the silent servants of the Lord of Sa Ruh. They made a sound like the chattering of monkeys as they approached, reaching out their crude hands to touch Nasari. She yelled and leapt back, shouting, “Keep away from them!”

“What are they, then?” Scaka asked.

“Mockeries, puppets, but their touch is death. Oh, these things must have been fearsome enemies when the gods fought with one another. Again I curse you in the name of the Lion and of the Spider! You should have died long ago! You are not wanted here!”

But none of Nasari’s curses had any effect: the creatures continued to descend from the tree without ceasing. Awab stumbled as he backed away, tripping over his numb foot. He rubbed it furiously, but it seemed to have gone utterly dead. “What do we do?” he said to no one in particular. “What do we do?”

Scaka was shaking his head and muttering to himself, so Awab looked to Nasari. She cursed the shadow a final time, then ran back to the idol and began striking it with her staff. A few chips of stone broke off, but nothing else happened. “Water!” Nasari cried. “If only I had the Crocodile within me! Don’t you know any dances for rain, Awab?”

Awab began to deny it, but then the words lit up a memory within him, and he stumbled over to Scaka. “Were you a rainmaker?” he said in a gasp, inventing the critical word on the spur of the moment from pieces of Duri.

“Yes. Yes,” Scaka said. He straightened his back and said in a calm voice, “Awab, give me your knife. Now!”

It was the Scaka that had run to save Dormil who spoke, and Awab quickly drew Balihagu’s knife and pressed it into Scaka’s hands. With a sharp motion Scaka cut his own palm and held it up to the sky, blood trickling down his arm. “Ngancemko padralu toscako scul,” he said, staring upwards.

And there was an answering rumble from above. A few moments later rain began to fall out of the clear sky, pattering on the ground and in the branches of the tree, the noise overpowering the wooden creatures’ chattering. The creatures backed away to huddle underneath the shade of the tree, staring out at them with wide eyes. Water poured into the dark hole, and from it rose a great serpent, huge against the trunk of the baobab, like the monster that had attacked Dormil but made of flesh rather than shadow.

But Scaka, undaunted, pushed forward and drove the point of the iron knife between the serpent’s scales. The wooden creatures collapsed into dead piles of twigs as the serpent writhed, then tore away from the knife, leaving a trail of blood. It shrank as it fled, coiling up and sprouting limbs until it became a man, loping into the forest with a hand pressed to his side, gone before anyone could pursue him.

Hesitantly Awab approached and knelt by the side of the hole. His foot was still dead, making movement difficult. There were steps of earth leading into the darkness, but he didn’t dare go down until Nasari preceded him and called up from below, “Come and see this, both of you! See what you’ve been fighting!”

So Awab descended, followed by Scaka, who put a sweating hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” he said to Awab. “Thank you for reminding me.”

“Do you remember everything now?” Awab asked.

“I remember nothing, yet I knew what to do, and I think I understand a little more of what I am. But what’s this?” They had reached the bottom, where the light from above was dim and left most of the cavernous space in darkness. But Awab could vaguely see Nasari standing before a painting on the wall which resembled a coiled snake.

“Is this the god?” he asked. “Or the idol? Or the shape-changer?”

“Gods do not exist as you or I, within the bounds of our skin,” said Nasari in a low voice. “Like mists they have no clear edge, and places where they are more or less concentrated. This was one place of power, underneath the tree where no doubt he fed on the blood of countless sacrifices. The idol was another, but now his power is gone.” She stood in front of the crystal for a while as the blood leaked out from it, then turned and walked past Awab and Scaka. “Come. We have our reward to gain.”

“What reward?” Awab asked.

“Ask Scaka about that.”

When they were in the open air again and approached the idol, Nasari gave it a prod with her staff. It broke along a line from top to bottom, the two halves splaying across the sledge. Then she struck the ox to send it back ahead of them. They walked slowly through the forest, and Awab found that his legs were trembling so hard he had to sit down for a while, telling Nasari and Scaka to continue on. He rubbed his dead foot to no avail, then glanced aside and found he was sitting right next to one of the wooden figures, fallen from the branches. It stared at him wordlessly, and he sprang up and hurried after Nasari and Scaka.

The first of the villagers to meet them was Dormil, running their way with an expression of delight on her face. She stopped just short of the ox and its sledge and cried, “You break Shadow’s idol!”

“We’ve broken the Shadow,” said Scaka. He took her hand and bowed his head; she looked at him in some surprise, then took his other hand in hers.

Rammemyc kagele,” she said.

“As touching as this is,” Nasari said, “we shouldn’t linger. Time is short and the gods are impatient.” She held her staff up as if using it to judge the height of something at a distance. Then she demanded of Dormil, “Paggul is gone, I take it.”

“My father looked for him, but he not here, not there.”

“No, he has fled after his master into the wilderness,” Nasari said. “Girl, you are a daughter of the veiled, aren’t you?”

“Must not say!”

“Oh, of course not. But you have certain powers over memories, don’t you?” If she had been going to say anything else, she was interrupted by the arrival of others from the village, men and women who approached hesitantly at first, then cried out in jubilation, dancing in a ring around the three of them and the broken idol.

They came before Kifson, who hadn’t moved from his stool. Dormil fell on her knees before her father and held up her hands, though she said nothing. Kifson rubbed his chin as he looked first at her, then at Scaka and the others. “So,” he said. “You have broken the idol. But what of the Shadow behind it?”

“Also broken,” said Nasari, “it and its slaves and its power. You need fear it no longer.”

“The Lion has struck down Paggul with his mighty paw. So it is. We will serve him again. But you have done well. You have served the Lion well. You have helped the Leftan beyond words. My daughter would like to take Scaka as her husband and she thinks he is willing.”

“I am most certainly willing,” Scaka said.

“By your deeds you have paid the brideprice. You have redeemed her from death. Take her!”

“Ask her to heal your memories,” Nasari said close to Scaka’s ear. “The Spider tells me she can do that for you.”

Then they were pushed and pulled forward to sit beside Kifson and his stool. Crowns of leaves were placed on their heads and bowls were brought to them of a sweet intoxicating liquid. It was Dormil herself who brought Scaka his bowl and held it as he drank. Awab drank only a little, remembering how he had been afflicted in the past by over-drink.

The men of the village danced in the space before them, chanting and lifting their spears in a ring. “They are praising the Lion,” said Nasari, her eyes shining out from amid the lines of her scars. “He is glad. He roars his delight.”

From somewhere nearby there was the smell of roasting meat, and as the sun descended through the sky women brought plates of beef to the square. “Ragj-gjanyc ngaruse,” said Kifson, holding his plate up above his head. “Hyc pengarute, sci ragj-gjan.

Though he appreciated the food, Awab lost interest in the celebration quickly, in the strange dances and incomprehensible phrases. Scaka was whispering to Dormil, so Awab spoke to Nasari, asking her where they were going from there. She considered the question for a while, staring down at her dark wrist, and then she said, “I think that depends on Scaka.”

“He’s just gotten married,” said Awab. “We may be with the Leftan for some time yet.”

“We’ll see,” Nasari said. “And the gods may have something to say when the moment comes.”

When night began to fall, Scaka and Dormil were ushered off with shouts and clanging tambourines. Kifson sat brooding on his stool as the square emptied, then he leaned forward onto his good leg. “I see you are not intact either. But the Lion is fond of the lopsided. Scaka has his reward. But what about you?”

“I ask nothing for myself, but the gods may ask something through me in coming days.”

“I will do it. And you, small one?”

Awab shook his head. “All I want is a promise of safety.”

“I can give that. All of you are my guests! And Scaka is my son-in-law now. Yes. You are all sacred! Who would hurt you? You overthrew the Shadow!”

“And a place to sleep,” Awab added.

Kifson laughed. “I can give that too. You can have Paggul’s house if you like. Everyone else will be frightened of his spirit. But you overthrew the Shadow!” He pointed to a small doorway set in the wall of the square.

Nasari bowed and said, “With your leave.” As Awab turned to go, he saw Kifson shrink down into himself, suddenly seeming very small and alone.

The house was obviously old in addition to being cramped, its stones cracked or broken, and it stank. “I don’t think the ghost is the reason no one would want to live here,” Awab said, and sat down far from any of the walls and their dark crevices. Nasari beat the ground with her staff for a while, walking in circles and muttering in her own language, then lay down on her side to sleep. Awab found it more difficult to sleep at first. From somewhere in the distance there was the sound of clanging bells, and unnervingly close to his ear the sound of something rustling. But he managed at last to rest, and no doubt inspired by Scaka’s sudden marriage, he dreamed that he was with Elyvvu, lying close together in a hammock, her arms around him.

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