In the village of Quazama there came restless spirits, snatching gold, green and red leaves from mammoth branches and spinning them to earth, making the sweet air heavier with heat, and sending an urgency squalling about the temple to assure the Grand Baraxus was paying attention. The dole houses were abuzz with labors as usual, and the fields were weighed down by vegetation that would feed well the many and spare the rest–those unable to work– any grief of starvation. The Grand Baraxus surveyed his small kingdom and found it good, while his chief Sentry whispered in his ear that a convening was soon needed.
“It is yet early, no need to move fast,” he said with the usual barest smile that preceded impatient reproval. “Surely Martram cannot be plotting once more when he knows so well who holds all power. Mind your attitude, Sentry.”
This was all said with an arrogant satisfaction; the feelings rested on his visage much like the expectancy of a victorious hunt. Yes, much had been done to himself by that scheming miscreant but much more had been undone by himself in the last brutal Discord.
Sentry O stepped two feet to the side and waited. He knew better than to press the matter though written word had arrived to him only moments ago. Time should not be wasted. He fingered the packet in his short robe now and felt the terrible heat of Martram’s rebellion. Sentry O was loyal to The Grand Baraxus as that was his only job. He was tired of trying to convince the man he was not entirely invincible. He had weaknesses others could spot even if he could not. Six times Quazama had given rise to leaders who had wielded the heft of their power and also discovered where it stopped. Not so Baraxus. Useful, potent insights could be obscured, even blotted out by the sheer force of ignorance of one’s self. This, Sentry O knew well. He had served nearly his entire life and now that his knees were bony and his skin loosening, eyes failing and hair leaving his lumpy head he wished only to rest. Not to plot with a ruler who cared less for all his people than one more rapacious bug. But rule he did. Sentry O blinked his eyes to erase this repugnant awareness. If such thoughts were seen in his face, he wouldn’t have time to plan his funeral celebration as he’d be vanquished in an instant. He had his family to consider, and his legacy.
Beyond the temple terracing lay the village Sentry O was so fortunate to be born into. Greenery and light were ubiquitous. The foliage flushed the air with a perfume by turns bright and sweet or darkly sweeter, depending on temperature of the air–or a warning spiritual agitation that came from far away, no one knew from where anymore. There were fifty dole houses, another to soon be added after his granddaughter came of age and chose her path. Although Sentry O felt her path was already chosen. He wanted to see what she might do before he failed to wake once and for all. Naliya knew her heart; her mind knew far more than she yet realized. But her good mother, Terl, was loathe to let her go. He turned back to Grand Braxas and waited to hear what was expected next, and loosened a shuddering sigh.
Crickets greeted her with a chorus of beautiful noise. River slipped through its banks in a surge of energetic melody. Light fed the water, Naliya thought as she filled the jugs, that was why it always shone. But today it was swift and cool and its blueness verged on purplish in its whorls and spouts. She frowned, looked upward. The sky was the same, open and brilliant. Her half-pale, half-inky hair flew above her head in a sudden gust and she pivoted to look all about. Three of the riverine deer were there as usual but only bobbed their fine heads at her, then reared up and dashed away. Naliya listened to the water, crickets, wind and heard a frenzy. She hoisted the jugs on her sturdy shoulders and half-ran back to the house. Her mother had been waiting by the fire, her long-fingered hands folded. She now stood, and went to the earthen tub.
“Mama, there’s something happening.”
“Child, don’t go on about signs now. Please bring me the water. There’s to be a convening tonight and I don’t have time to discuss your far flung meanings now.” Terl poured the contents of a jug into the deep tub, then sprinkled on top a smattering of dried herbs and flowers. She slipped off her blue robe and stepped in, then leaned back. Her eyes closed. “The Grand Baraxus must have an itch to create chaos again. I wonder why he bothers to call us all in for counsel when he will needs his own way in the end…Not like when our blessed ancestors toiled for and lived the peace, joined life in the realm of the Prism.”
“Mama, listen, the deer left the river before coming to me. This isn’t right–you know they visit me every day. They didn’t even wait for my new honeyed berry treats.” She handed her mother two vials of scented oil.
“Thank you for the oils. Naliya, calm yourself. You may stay here or sit with your cousins or neighbors. It will likely last into eventide.” She put her face in the water, then came up for air and smoothed her arms and neck with oils.
Naliya had only that year been allowed to sit by herself and this thought helped alleviate her concerns. It meant she could visit Zanz, her best friend and maybe more, and her mother wouldn’t know. She knew that now she was thirteen summers she wasn’t supposed to visit him without a chaperone. But they always found a way.
“Alright, but my riverine deer don’t deceive…”
“Daughter, we will see what is to be seen. Patience.”
Naliya sat by the tub and idly dipped swished her fingers in the tepid swirling water, awaiting a turn if she wanted one. Her long hair was lifted from her shoulders by a blast of wind through the open doorway and tossed it over her face. For a moment she was blinded by its mass. A darkening sweetness found her nose and she sneezed, then coughed, out of breath until her mother’s hand grabbed hers. Terl’s face might have betrayed her own fears but Naliya thought only of Zanz.
Their typical back and forth worked its way around the circle many times. The dissenting had been civil as well as time wasting and also thought provoking. Now their words had found a more comfortable balance.
Except for the Grand Baraxas’ declarations.
“If that idiot Martram feels he must try to usurp me once more and be humiliated by losing again, then let it be done. Isn’t the far banishment enough? This time, the outcome must be final!”
There was a murmuring about the circle. Twelve plus the Grand Baraxas sat about the emblematic bolt of lightning and lance inlaid on the floor. Their current ruler had designed and fashioned this from gemstones and finest made tiles when he came into power sixteen years prior. It had replaced the River, Sun, Tree and Star within the Four Directions Cross that had forever been Quazama’s symbols until then.
“When was he last heard from?” another of the Sentries inquired. “He has been gone for over nine seasons this time. I had imagined him quite dead already.” He barked an angry laugh.
There was silence at that; no one imagined anyone much less Martram dead unless he or she planned on killing him, it was a bad seed of an idea. Did he know, perhaps, Braxas’ hidden plan, fueled by his greatest desire?
Terl shifted and looked up at their ruler who in his orange splendid robes appeared more corpulent than ever. She barely smiled but patiently. “I heard from him once not so long after he left. When the storms came and went and he was out seeking sustenance. It was past the Highland hills; I was searching for pink tourmaline for a necklace for Naliya. I told this at the convening for harvest back then. He said his intention was one day return–you know this so surely the latest news is no shock.”
The Grand Baraxus smoothed his unruly grey beard, flicking bits of food onto the floor as he found them.
“When exactly was the recent information given us and had he a name?” asked a woman.
“Late last evening. A Roamer, hence no name known, stopped for a meal with Hiri and his family. He left at dawn, having completed his task and being fed and rested. No one we ever seen around here before, so said Hiri.”
“And he said he had just met with Martram for food, as well…repeat the message you received from Hiri, Sentry O.”
“The river belongs to no one but the people, amen, and to perfect facets of the Light, amen.” He turned to Terl who gave her full attention as she listened. “This be the prayer we’ve said so long, of course. Then: the people determine worth and need as taught by the Prism’s Heart alone.”
“He never trusted the Grand Baraxus’ knowledge and words. It cost Martram greatly as is the law, and so it has been done,” the First Sentry asserted, and stomped his feet to underscore the point.
“Who does?” someone whispered but only a few heard and ignored it.
The Grand Baraxus got up with difficulty as Sentry O helped him, then left the circle and stood with hands behind him, staring out at Quazama. He hadn’t expected this, not so soon, and now that he had taken ill with increasing frequency the last thing he wanted was more trouble than he could manage well. He rubbed his head with a large, soft hand and turned back to his three best Sentries who sat three in a row. The third appeared to be close to dozing, idiot, in response no doubt to the warmth in the chamber, making it close. He wished it was storm weather again so it would cool. He wished he could just drink a large goblet of wine, lie at peace with his woman.
“I am about out of patience,” he said and reclaimed his spot in the circle, touching the lightning and lance once each, then his chest, as was required when coming to or leaving a convening.
“We might vote on holding a village court to determine his worth, as before this was not done as was once our custom,” Sentry O said, his once-rich and strong voice now tremulous. He cleared his throat. “What is your say Terl, Mistress of Rites?”
They all turned to her. She sat tall, her white hair pulled into a braid at the nape of her neck, rain flowers woven in. Her rose and silver robe glimmered in shifting light cast by candles in wall sconces. She felt deeply calm, almost out of body, despite her heart jumping at the thought of Martram coming to Quazama. She knew exactly what to do.
“We will at last bring out the Living Trust and see what is known of its truth. Martram and the Grand Baraxas will answer the questions that are posed by the last originals among us, Jedmin and Kristoz. This is my offering of justice: guidance of our oldest Quazama rites, the Living Trust left us from our best origins. ”
A gasp went up and then a silence so loud it nearly shook the room.
“I forbid this! I have governed all this time and we prosper in grain and fruit and gemstones! I have been more than fair, more than I should have been despite the unruliness of our people! I need not defend myself with a mere display of words in the open square!” He stood bellowing into the rafters; everyone had to resist the urge to disperse.
But convening members gathered their breath. They locked eyes one pair to the next pair each person around the circle; they began to hum in four tones, a harmony rich and steady, singular. Mighty. Inside the small chamber, the sounds merged and curled about the group and then the Grand Baraxas, to the ceiling, out the windows.
It was determined: meant to be. The Grand Braxas stood with fists at his side, but even he would be tampering with strong power if he rebelled against a convening. And so he left.
A member spoke up. “Now we need the Messenger to send for Martram, the sooner the better. Who is the fastest runner since our last poor soul lost his life to a jungle cat? We have waited too long to choose the next!”
“I have a name,” Sentry O leaned into the circle and looked at Terl.
She closed her eyes, folded her arms against her chest and prayed.
“That’s it,” Zanz said and gave Naliya his cup for another drink. “They’re done. Do you know what it’s all about?”
They had come to the river in hopes of spotting a glimpse of the three deer but they weren’t so far visible. They, like all villagers, knew a convening decision was announced by the resonant humming which spread across the village, filling each dole house and then sailing over fields and grasslands to dissipate before reaching the boundary of the highlands.
Naliya sat with knees pulled up to chin, her arms around them. “I could guess but would rather not. It’s not a good moment. No deer, no happiness. Mama knew it when I told her they left me earlier. But she won’t ever quite agree with me, as if I am not supposed to know.”
He turned from his front onto his back. “She’s right; you’re too young. Just be easy with life, let the elders worry!” He tickled her arm with a long flat blade of grass, then stuck it between his teeth, blew on it until it vibrated and made a harsh sound. He wanted to impress her even with simple things but usually failed at this.
Naliya pushed him so the grass fell away, then put her face close to his. “I am not too young. I am ready to do things, know things!”
“Like what?” He felt the pleasant warmth of her breath on his lips and thought he could taste berries.
She nudged his long nose with her short one, then sat back, legs splayed. “Something smart, something good….”
Zanz sat up and stretched. “You’ll soon have to sweat like I do every day, working the looms or tending sheep or helping your mother find gemstones. Or train as a warrior–you’re very fast on your feet, have good balance, are strong. I might do that later. You can do more after you learn a trade, like anyone who has a strong body, is a quick thinker. And that, I’m afraid, is more true of you than most anyone I know.”
He wanted to touch each color of her thick hair, the unusual ivory and blue-black strands lustrous in the dusky light. They marked her as part of grand rulers many lines back, which was why her mother was Mistress of Rites. But to meet her–any girl her age but even more so, her– was forbidden enough. He instead tossed a wildflower onto her head and she grabbed a handful of grasses with earth attached to roots and threw them at him until they were on their feet, laughing and shouting.
Naliya put her hands out in a sudden motion to stop their play.
“Mama will soon come looking, I must return home.” She stood still and let her eyes boldly roam over him, then looked away as her cheeks flushed. “Until next time.”
“Until next time,” Zanz said and they parted ways, he to the near valley and she to village center.
Terl waited on a stool at their dole house and told herself to be wise, be at ease with life and humble. She felt grateful for all the years they had made their home in lovely Quazama. It was a decent space, one that was comfortable, vibrant with hand woven fabrics she used to decorate, many gems she’d turned into mosaics and the voluptuous flowers her daughter planted last year and now tended in the side garden for their table. But even with much to appreciate and a future that seemed secure, she felt the fear race through her veins, as if someone had put in a taint of pulsing poison that sought only to ruin her or get out. She felt her mind expand, and in its dense center then illumine the hard truth. In her innermost being she begged for mercy. She tried to not weep but it was beginning. Now.
As Naliya came up to the door of the house, she stopped. She felt an involuntary shiver, willed the waning light shift into her sturdy body and wiry limbs. She looked up for the flock of birds she’d watched take wing, then dipped and turned away as she’d made her way through the grasslands. They were no longer there. Her riverine deer had left. Everything held its breath as before a great storm.
She stepped inside and found her mother seated on her stool, sunset’s graciousness spilling through the open skylight, onto her rose and silver garment. Naliya had such love for her but knew, too, the power she possessed even if she denied it, saying it was nothing, it was only beauty passed on and that vanished. Naliya knew otherwise. She knew her mother was one of the wise, just as her mother and the mother before them both had been. Her grandfather, Sentry O, remembered much more.
The Mistress of Rites held a hand out to her long-legged strong child.
“Naliya. Little dove.” She lay her hands alongside her wind-and sun-burnished face, and looked deep into her unsettled face and still grey eyes. “It’s time. You are made the new Messenger. There is no turning away, no turning back.”
Naliya heard her but it was there is no turning away, no turning back that struck her to the core. She suspected she might become the Messenger as she was the fastest runner in the village and knew how to keep things safe. What else was her mother not saying aloud?
She knelt at her feet, accepted the strange blessing passed on from her very hands. And felt a terrifying courage rise up in her blood and bones, readying her for work to come as each fretful roving spirit tried to shake her. And soundly failed.
(Readers: Part 2 will be posted next Monday. The photographs are by this writer.)