After three days of breathless escape across the grasslands and no less than thirty of our people lost, the waters of the Nyamba river finally sparkled before my weary eyes. Every soul among the survivors–the last of the Bjebu–sobbed with joy, and even the faithless murmured their thanks to the Great Elders from between dry lips.
We dropped to our knees at the riverbank, panting like a herd of mad oxen. Some threw themselves into the water, swallowing and gasping. Others rolled on their backs, drenched in sweat and dust. Mkiwa, our chief huntress, climbed the great tree and perched above us, her spear thrust forth, the lion’s pelt hugging her shoulders.
I washed my face and arms in the cold water. Dirt had dyed my crimson khanga brown, so I rinsed its edges and tossed the veil around my head. I uttered a short prayer for those who had fallen along the road.
The grasslands stretched around us, bathed in the early rays of dawn–a rippling ocean of green in the fresh wind. The blue mountains guarded the horizon, gathering around their highest peak–Mount Wawazee, the abode of the Elders. I caught a breath of the dewy air. Deer grazed in the shadow of a far tree, oblivious to our clamor.
“Can we rest yet, High Sister?” asked one farmer.
“Are we safe yet, High Sister?” whispered one hunter.
I yearned for a comforting reply to their fears, but I couldn’t offer what I didn’t have. After what I had seen in the past days, it was difficult to imagine that a haven still lay somewhere in this land. Our pursuers’ vicious beaks and manic caws had filled our senses for days now. Their furious small bodies had poured upon our homes and ripped through wood and clay and flesh until our village drowned in its own blood. We had fled, only barely escaping them.
I raised a questioning eye to Mkiwa. A moment passed as she stared into the horizon, and then my heart fell as she grimaced and spun back to me with a look I knew well.
The ravens were upon us. We had never lost them.
I uttered a desperate sigh. Around me sat three hundred souls that had spent days venturing across the grasslands–those children playing in the water, and the old men who had seen no less than a hundred winters, and the farmers who could neither hold a spear nor a shield. I looked at our handful of weary yet fearless hunters, who I knew would die before they let harm chafe us. But what use was bravery in the face of sheer numbers?
I dropped to my knees and pressed my hands to the moist grass. I drew in a deep breath and twisted my tongue and lips to match the breath of the earth beneath me. “Heed my call, Ancient Land, and lend me your wisdom. My people need shelter.”
The land sighed under my palms. The old voice filled my head. “I hear you, High Sister, and I have what you seek. Though the ravens fade into oblivion when compared to what lies here.”
“I have lost many lives on the road, Ancient Land. Show me this sanctuary, whatever it may be.”
“You stand upon the abode of the Keeper of Sorrows, and of him and this place, I shall speak no more.”
My fingers dug into the dirt. “You must talk. By the will of the twin Elders, Arowo-Ara and Ufefe, Striders of Thunder and Lightning, I implore you to show your secrets.”
The voice grunted in pain. I hated my cruelty, I hated to use the Elders’ names to threaten another being, but time was of the essence.
“So be it,” whispered the land.
A sudden quake rushed beneath our feet. Gasps filled the air, and I clung to the dirt as my body swayed. Above us, shades of crimson spilled across the sky, as if the clouds had bled. Screams erupted. Our hunters jumped to their feet while the children wriggled into their mothers’ arms.
Across the river, three trees burst into smoke, and behind them stood a walled structure that had not been there before.
“High Sister!” shouted Mkiwa.
I turned and saw the cloud of quivering wings and screaming beaks, crawling across the sky to where we stood. “Make haste, people!” I cried. “Follow me.”
The villagers snatched their sacks and rolls and helped the weakest to their feet. I carried one of the fleeing children on my shoulder and pulled the edges of my khanga, then waded into the chilly waters.
We raced to the stone structure, hopping and splashing across the river. My drenched clothes clung to my legs, sending ruthless shivers through me, but I clenched my teeth and held the girl on my shoulder tight. We poured through the open gate, pushing against each other and coughing, until we filled the courtyard–an ancient grove of thorny trees.
Our noise petered out into the hum of those murmuring their trembling prayers. I helped the child on my shoulder to the ground and let her run to her mother, then turned to see where we stood.
The barren branches swayed in the heavy air. Rusty lanterns rattled around us, sending harsh beams on the pale faces. Who kept those alight, and what oil did they feed upon? I could smell no living soul but ours.
I held my breath and listened to the wind, but I couldn’t understand its whispers. Had it no memories of this place? Or was it too fearful to tell?
I made my way to the small building at the end of the grove. Engraved glyphs covered its walls, similar to an Elder’s shrine, though I had never come across a shrine in such a meager size. The door was sealed with a sigil of a wailing raven. My fingers ran over it, and it gave a crimson glow.
The caws grew louder behind us. Soon those beasts would overrun this grove. Men fell to their knees, weeping and praying. Women clutched children–theirs or others’–into their arms.
I pushed the door and it pushed me back. I pounded it with my fists and rattled the chains. I tried to commune with the stone, with the iron, with the water running in the grooves. My mind jumped between tongues like a chameleon changed skin, but the place eluded me.
I pressed my palms to the stone. “I ask your aid, Uymawela, Elderess of Every Flying Beast, to shield us from your rogue minions.”
A hum rushed under my hands. I strained to listen for an answer, but I couldn’t hear one.
“Help us, Kahewer, Elder of the Wandering Winds, and stop those foul creatures riding your arms.”
A chuckle echoed in my mind–mocking and disdainful, nothing like the firm voice of Uymawela nor the gentle laugh of Kahewer.
Shouting erupted behind me, mixed with rabid squawks. Children wailed. I turned and saw Mkiwa pulling our hunters to surround the villagers, spears high, teeth bared. A whirlwind of ebony birds loomed above our heads.
“Hear me, Uhrgama, Elder of the Writhing Mambas.” My voice quivered. “Send us your army and take our lives. End our pain now.”
“You call the wrong names, shamaness.”
The slow voice poured into my head, thick like a muddy creek, cold like a grave. The fluttering around us slowed, and each raven brandished its talons and caught a tree branch.
“High Sister!” cried one of the villagers. I raised my hand demanding silence.
“My minions are upon you,” said the voice. “You saw my sigil, yet you fail to call my name.” He spoke the Elders’ tongue, but I couldn’t recognize him.
“The birds answer to Uymawela,” I said warily.
“The ravens answer to me, The Father of all Ravens.”
He uttered the last words in our Bjebu tongue, so I returned it in his. “Babawa-Kunguru,” I said, and then I remembered the words of the land, “the Keeper of Sorrows.”
His laugh rang in my head. “You’re good, Shamaness Nwere of the Bjebu, Speaker of a Thousand Tongues, and Sister to All.”
A few heartbeats passed before I recognized my birth name, the name no one among my people knew.
“I could contemplate sparing your lives. And I might even offer you a place to call home, permanently,” he said. “Yet what do I get in return?”
Alarm filled my senses. Neither his words nor his tone bore any resemblance to the Great Elders, save for the ancient tongue. Why did such eagerness coat his voice?
“Name your price, Elder,” I said.
He didn’t hesitate. “Three offerings of sorrow–a tribute from your people to my shrine. Do this, and the land is yours. Forever.”
Someone gasped behind me. I spun around to see Old Auni, the blacksmith, passed out on the ground, a girl hugging him and whimpering in silence. Eshe the water-carrier was ceaselessly clapping her head, surrounded by her five daughters. My people watched me with primal terror.
My head ached. I needed time to think, to understand what this tribute entailed. How could sorrow be–
Three ravens flew off their branches and landed on the stone above my head, their lecherous gaze licking my face. I shuddered and lost my focus for a moment.
There was neither time nor a choice.
I turned and pressed the stone. “So be it.”
His dry chuckle filled me. The swarm of ravens squawked and struck the wind once, buffeting our bodies with a chilly gust, then flew high and away, as if called from afar.
The villagers dropped to the ground, crying and laughing and praying and hugging. Two attended to the senseless man. Mkiwa pointed her spear at me. “Praise to you, High Sister! Praise to you!”
I tried to smile back, to share their joy, but my eyes clung to the crimson sigil as it went out, dimmer and dimmer, until it became another dull scrape on the shrine’s wall.
Three offerings of sorrow.
Like an unrepentant echo, the words trudged in my head through the next day, and the next week, and the next month. We were guests in the abode of the Father of All Ravens–guests allowed to use the land, with a promise that we could claim the place as ours when we delivered our end of the bargain. I buried this truth in my heart away from my people, but the trepidation gnawed at my soul.
The riverbank blossomed into a young village. Rows of smoke-spewing huts framed the waterside, facing the great Wawazee peak, and separated by winding lanes. The small storage yard held game and fruit–our primary sustenance for the moment, but we had started digging a shallow canal from the river, hoping to farm for grain and yams next season.
I helped construct a narrow bridge over the river and took residence in Babawa-Kunguru’s shrine. The place housed three chambers under its roof; one for me, one for a small depository of papyrus scrolls, and a sealed inner sanctum at the rear. A modest abode, no match for the towering structures erected to honor Uymawela or Uhrgama.
I sat in the depository one night, sifting through the ancient writings, when sudden bangs on the door interrupted me.
I dropped the scrolls and ran to the noise. A party of three stood there, their faces pale and drenched with sweat.
“High Sister, help us,” blurted one of them. “It’s Mkiwa.”
My heart fell. I tossed the veil around my head and wordlessly hurried with them to cross the bridge. The villagers had already lit the night lanterns, sending spheres of light on the dusty lanes. Grim faces lined my way, and even the children had ceased their play. What was it that could halt a child’s frolic?
Worried hunters blocked the door of Mkiwa’s hut. They noticed me and immediately made way.
Mkiwa lay on her hay bed, shivering and clutching the ground. Her lion’s pelt sprawled in the dust. Beside her sat a boy pressing a blood-soaked rag to her leg. I set a hand on his shoulder, he turned to me, and a wave of relief washed over his face, as if I had already saved his chief huntress by my mere presence.
Mkiwa’s dry lips parted. “High Sister...”
I sat beside her and lifted the cloth, and I struggled to stifle a gasp. Her bloated calf twitched furiously under stretched skin, and within the blackened, angry flesh I saw two punctures–too small to perceive, but the oozing blood gave them away.
Mkiwa strained to talk. “An... an ashen viper. I... I was–”
Great Elders help me, I thought as I patted her. Few hunters had ever bested that venom.
My voice hardened as I spoke to the boy. “I need a clean cloth and a knife, and some boiled Anugra roots. Find someone to get me a mortar and a pestle.”
The boy nodded and vanished without a word.
My requests landed before me faster than I had ordered them. I pulled up my sleeves and started speaking while working. “Igbi, press over the muscles on this side. Banu, heat the knife. Are the roots ready, Nya? Pass me the pestle, then!”
Mkiwa shivered. Her skin felt cool and clammy, but I managed to stop the bleeding. I applied the salve with care, then gripped her ankle and called the name of the venom. It evaded me like a water lizard, leaping from one limb to another, trying to spread itself through her body, until I forced it through the open wound into a small bowl.
I closed the skin. My face dripped with sweat.
Mkiwa looked at me with bloodshot eyes. “P–Praise you, High Sister.”
I patted her foot again. My mind churned dark thoughts. She might survive through the night, but this leg would never carry her body again. We had lost our chief huntress’s spear that day.
I wiped my face and leaned back against the wall. The boy insisted on spending the night with me here, and I was too weary to argue. He sat straight for the first quarter of the night, but his eyes let him down, and in the next hour he lay snoring on his side.
My eyes wandered to Mkiwa’s face. Pity swarmed my heart as I saw tears trickling from between her closed eyelids over her strong face.
A cold presence floated across the room, and the shadows danced on the walls. A chilly breeze blew my veil, and a thick voice poured into my head.
“Loss is the father of sorrow, shamaness.”
I sat straight. “Babawa-Kunguru...”
“The huntress mourns the loss of her path, of what she believed was a birthright, to walk and chase and climb without thought. I know such sorrow well. ”
Blood rushed to my head. I whispered, “Why are you here?”
“To claim my first offering, of course. This is the first of the three sorrows I asked.”
My eyes darted around, as if I expected to see a glimpse of him somewhere. “You’re here to kill her?”
He chuckled. “Kill her? Why would I? The dead feel no sorrow. Remember that.”
“You are the Speaker of a Thousand Tongues. You will call her sorrow to you and bring it to me in the inner sanctum now.”
I frowned. Draw her sorrow, the way I drew the venom?
A pale ray of hope blossomed in my heart. “Would that take her pain away?”
“How far you can help her is tethered to your skill, but know well that sorrow is no feeble poison.”
His reply did little to comfort me. Again, I could feel his orders pushing me forth like a rapid river with little choice.
I took a deep breath and crawled to the bed. My hand felt cold, so I rubbed it against my leg before I rested it on Mkiwa’s heart. She didn’t open her eyes. She was weeping asleep.
I drew in another shaky breath, then spoke in the tongue of sorrow–dark words that came from the hearts of mourners at graveyards and farmers at the end of a poor inundation.
Mkiwa’s face twisted, but she didn’t wake up. Black smoke seeped from her chest and circled my fingers. The veins on my hand bulged and a numbing cold crawled up my arm, my shoulder, and into my own heart. I gasped, struggling to contain such darkness, to keep it from consuming me.
I finally stood up and staggered to the door, then out onto the sleepy alleys.
My journey back blurred. I stumbled into the shrine, everything dancing before my eyes. I leaned against the wall to steady myself, but then I caught a glimpse of the inner sanctum. The door was open for the first time since our arrival. Light poured from inside.
Breathless, I stepped into a wide room, well-lit with blazing torches on the walls. The air smelled of thick incense. I fell on my hands and knees, and before me lay a large stone slab, countless glyphs marring its face.
I coughed. I clutched my chest and coughed again. Wisps of black smoke poured from my mouth and swirled over the glyphs. The lines glowed with a fiery hue, but I couldn’t read them.
Babawa-Kunguru inhaled in my head, an edge of lust in his breath. “Yes, I know this sorrow. I know this loss.”
The glyphs glared brighter. I touched the stone. My heart raced, and the room blurred around me.
“Babawa-Kunguru,” says a tall woman in a mantle of glowing feathers. “I have erased your name from our books. The Elders will swear fealty to me, and today I command every flying beast.”
“Not every beast, Uywamela,” growls a man cloaked by the shadows.
She chuckles. “Brother, are you comparing your carrion-eaters to my army? Your filthy ravens, against every vulture, eagle, owl, and stormbird?”
Babawa-Kunguru grabs her arm. Her golden eyes widen, and with a thunderous squawk she backhands his face. A terrifying flutter of wings floods the room as countless birds engulf him.
He wails with agony. “My eye! Curse you, Uymawela! My eye!”
I opened my eyes, feeling a thrill in the stone under my hand. I squinted hard. Suddenly I could read the ancient tongue engraved before me.
My lips uttered the first phrase; Mata wa Urizi.
In the ancient Elders’ tongue, it meant, he who missed his path.
“Loss of the path,” whispered Babawa-Kunguru in my head. “Perhaps not the deepest of miseries, as I’ll teach you one day, but it fits my first offering.”
Was that the pain that gnawed at Mkiwa’s heart? I wondered. I’d rather die now than bear such sightless grief.
I rubbed my chest, struggling to breathe, but managed to force the words through my throat, “What is... the deepest of miseries?”
But his voice had faded. “I accept your tribute for tonight, shamaness. Until the next time.”
Brutal nightmares whipped at me every following night–foul visions that I couldn’t recall when I opened my eyes in the morning. When I stared at my copper mirror I saw new lines gathering around my eyes and a new ashen strand splitting my hair.
Sorrow is no feeble poison.
I touched my cheekbones. Was that how I looked after a single offering? How would I endure this for two more times?
I washed my face and crossed the village to Mkiwa’s hut. Her face still paled, but her strong body had stifled the pain. Did her heart’s pain fare any better, though? I couldn’t tell.
I stopped by some of the farmers. The canal had neared its finish. One of them approached me with a hopeful smile. She said they had found a nearby settlement of the Omi–a large tribe whose herders claimed their cattle were the most well-fed in the land. “We could start a trade with them, High Sister. Would you consider?” she asked.
We had lost our herds back home, and with it, a lot of our pride. It was time for the Bjebu to spread new roots in this spot of land.
I smiled back at the girl. “Who’s escorting me to the Omi?” I asked aloud, and no less than a dozen hands jumped into the air.
A short trip it was, but we negotiated for the whole afternoon. The Omi agreed to trade five heads of cattle for ten rolls of leather and a wagonful of dried game. I thanked their chief and promised her another visit soon.
Shouts of joy erupted as we approached our village. Farmers came running, praising me while guiding the beasts back to the new sheds. I smiled as I watched their spirits soar. The Bjebu hadn’t perished in the raging cataracts of time yet. The Bjebu were starting our own herds again.
“Will we see you tonight, High Sister?” asked a young man.
I remembered. That night we were to hold a Kale-Naga a boy’s coming-of-age, the first since we arrived here. I would definitely be there.
When the night had fallen, we sat in two half-circles before the great tree where we first arrived. Those at the outer circle held the lanterns and chanted songs of the ancestors’ deeds, while the inner circle clapped their hands and stamped their feet. I stood before them, burning incense, calling the boy’s name–Hami, son of the tanner.
Hami rose from the crowd. He had been fasting for two days to cleanse his body and had worn his father’s necklace and armband. He knelt before me, and I rubbed the ash over his forehead, telling him how proud we were, wishing him strength in his coming life.
He turned to the crowd, and three older boys rose and faced him. Like Hami, they were unarmed. The boy had to defeat the hardships of life with his bare hands before he would resort to a spear.
Hami arched his back and clenched his fists, then charged at his rivals. I glanced at his father; he was pouring a drink in bowls and passing it around to the villagers–milk and honey, the drink of the Elders.
Cheering erupted. Hami had sent his first opponent rolling over the grass, then parried a punch from the second and swiped his feet off the ground. He turned to the third boy and roared, pouncing over him, and rammed the boy’s chest with his head.
His muscular body glistened with sweat, but he was grinning. The villagers howled with excitement, and a group of hunters waved their spears at him.
The last part was ceremonial yet necessary. Hami had to spar with his own father, the tanner, and his father would have to feign defeat. It was a reminder to us that this boy had started the first step to taking his father’s place one day.
The tanner set his bowl down and stood up, wiping his lips. With clumsy hands, he tossed a staff at his son and grabbed one for himself. His eyes danced wildly in their pits.
Mkiwa sat in the front row, ready to present the boy with his spear after the ceremony, but her pale face bore furrowed brows. Her eyes caught mine and I saw concern in them–something about the tanner felt odd.
The father swayed. “My little cub,” he cried, “has become a lion.” He poked with the staff at his son’s shoulder–a cruel poke, not one of humor nor of encouragement. “And yet you, petty lad, are nothing like Sabu.”
Hami’s smile vanished. Sabu was his older brother. We had lost him during our flight from the ravens.
“Brighter... than a full moon, my son,” the tanner huffed and slurred, “stronger than a hundred lions. You may wear a band and bear a spear, but my real son is... is–”
Whispers erupted from the villagers. Hami dropped his staff and extended a comforting hand towards his father.
The tanner’s staff swung once and struck Hami’s thigh. The boy grunted and fell on one knee. “Father...”
Without warning, the tanner clutched his son’s hair and slapped him. “The ravens chose well that night!” Spittle flew everywhere. “They chose well!”
Two men grabbed the tanner. He started wriggling like a hyena and tore the band off his son’s arm. Two others dragged and pinned him to the ground. I dropped to my knees beside him and held his head to smell his frothy mouth, and the pungent odor quickly chafed my nose.
He had not been drinking the drink of the Elders...
The fumes were unmistakable. It was aged date liquor, laced with Bama bark. The Omi warriors used it in battle to flame their bloodlust. It was no less a taboo for us than desecrating the dead. What fiend had brought this into my village?
I stood up. “Carry him to his house. Everyone else, go home.”
The crowd slowly parted, their murmurs and hums incessant. The fire burned low. The moon hid behind a stray cloud, and a drop of rain touched my face. Hami huddled in a corner; his band lay broken beside him and tears dropped off his chin. I might have welcomed him as a man to this life a while ago, but at this moment he was but a lost child.
I sat beside him and put my arm around his shoulders, but a dry chuckle echoed in my head.
“Do you recognize the loss that sired this sorrow, shamaness?” whispered Babawa-Kunguru. “Do you recognize the loss of dignity, the humiliation before the eyes of those whom you hold dear?”
By the Elders, if my body were thrown in a pile of maggots, I wouldn’t have felt such loathing.
Babawa-Kunguru continued, “My second offering is nigh.”
His eagerness sent my blood boiling. I hugged Hami harder. “You had a hand in this,” I hissed.
“The tanner loved his drink.”
I spat on the grass.
“At ease, shamaness,” he said. “You are close. Soon, this land will be yours to claim.”
I cursed him under my breath and cursed his bargain. Listening to his poisonous voice felt like a vile sin worthy of the Pits of Daagu. I was now willing to give everything to leave this wretched piece of land.
But again, how would I ever persuade my people to leave? To return to the road again, with no home to lean upon? And worse yet, what secrets would I be forced to defile?
Hami shivered under my arm. I leaned upon him and closed my eyes to call the boy’s humiliation to me.
It came quicker this time, pinching at my hands and arms. My fingertips numbed and my skin crawled. The boy’s sorrow oozed faster than I could contain it, like an overflowing pot.
I gasped for a breath through a narrow throat. Slow moments of this agony passed as the rain drummed on the grass, but Hami eventually calmed. I asked in a hoarse voice if he could go home and he nodded, so I stood up and staggered away.
When the black smoke had left my body and found its way on the stone slab, I lay on the floor panting, cold sweat matting my hair and veil. Countless scratches danced across my hands and arms, as if an invisible blade carved them. My chest heaved.
The engraved words glowed on the stone. I ran my scarred finger over them.
The man staggers in a clearing and clutches his left eye. A party of onlookers stand in the distance.
A ball of dirt strikes his stomach. He cries, “Will you abandon me now, Kahewer? Do you not remember our feats together?”
A gust of wind melts the man’s clothes away to tatters. “Will you aid Uymawela in her usurping, Uhrgama?”
A spit collides with his face. “I saved your life a hundred times, Mamandra.”
No one answers him. No one cares, or perhaps no one dares. He raises his trembling hands, and in a heartbeat the angry caws of the ravens fill the sky.
I opened my eyes. Every part of my body ached. The second phrase on the stone shone so bright it stung my eyes.
Mata wa Kraag. He who missed his pride.
Babawa-Kunguru growled in my head. “Centuries had passed, leaving only the sorrow behind. Now I see the loss again, and it hurts no less.”
Weariness had flooded my mind and words eluded me. Uywamela’s shrill screams lingered in my ears, and the smell of dirt dwelled in my nose.
“One last offering, shamaness,” his presence waned, “I will wait patiently.”
Rain licked at the window’s sill. I let my muscles rest. We were past more than half of the way to our bargain with the Elder, but my mind kept recalling his words–of the day when he would claim his tribute whole, when he would teach me about the deepest of miseries.
A winter passed and a summer in its wake. I rose one dawn to a hail of laughter coming from the village, and I knew the day I feared had come. Our merry moments, it seemed, called to Babawa-Kunguru like honey called to ants.
Wahiru-Naga–the first harvest in the life of a young village, a sign from the fates that this place would thrive–had landed.
People poured onto the village square, striking the drums till the beats rocked the sky. Dancers painted their faces and their children’s. The aroma of spiced game and sweet yams dominated the alleys–I could swear the beasts of the grasslands smelled it.
Everyone danced, everyone offered their thanks. Everyone except me. I knew The Father of All Ravens would never miss that day to claim his final tribute. I examined every crate and barrel in the village myself. I opened the vessels. I tasted the drinks. I inspected every corner of the storage yard.
When the sun had started its descent, I stood in my window, gazing at the great fire the villagers had started in the main square. When daylight perished behind the blue mountains, the festival would end by burning a hay-image of Abebe, the crocodile Elder who devoured the grain stores of Mamandra.
Cold breathed into my room. My khanga fluttered, and I felt his presence before he spoke.
“You have spent quite the day wasting your joy,” said Babawa-Kunguru. “I’d rather you saved your powers for the final offering.”
My scarred hands clung to the window. My voice came out tired, with an edge of hatred I had never felt before for another being. “I knew you’d come tonight, Elder.”
“Yes. This is the deepest of miseries, when a whole village loses its harvest of the year. Isn’t that why you came tonight?”
A scraping noise echoed in the corridor. I ran outside my chamber to see the door to the inner sanctum open.
I stepped into to the large room. The torches on the wall shivered, and Babawa-Kunguru’s voice sieved through the stones. “You speak of the deepest of miseries, though you’ve seen but a sliver of true sorrow, shamaness.”
A sudden gale blew across the shrine, sending the lanterns and the scrolls flying.
“Touch the stone slab,” he ordered. “Call my memories to you. Force them, if you must.”
I stepped back, but a dangerous tone crept into his cold voice. “Do it!”
The scars on my arms throbbed. My breath twisted before my eyes into clouds of steam, and my teeth chattered. I was forced to my knees and my hands touched the slab.
The images struggled to show themselves this time. I called to them again, harder and harder until my head spun, but they disobeyed me every time.
“Focus!” said Babawa-Kunguru.
Blood pounded my eyes and ears. Why couldn’t I see his memories? What had I missed?
The ache in my head surged. I screamed in pain. Images floated before my eyes, slowly but steadily. I pressed the stone until my arms trembled, until I could see him again.
Thousands upon thousands of birds collide in the sky, blotting the sun and plunging the land in darkness. Uymawela’s swarm tears Babawa-Kunguru’s wailing ravens apart, and with one final roar, it swoops down at him–a raging wave of flesh and bone and feathers. When the winged tide ebbs, he lies on the ground, covered in blood and dirt and shame.
A little girl with a thick braid rushes to him–Tzanza, the youngest of the Elders, She Who Walks With The Rain, Uymawela’s daughter. She kneels beside him, holding a bowl of water, and starts to wipe his face and chest.
He tries to smile at her. Tears flow from his right eye.
Rough hands grab the girl’s arm, and the bowl is tossed away.
“Imprison him,” says Uymawela, “in a tomb where he lies now, and shackle him with his own sorrows.”
And the last line flared on the stone.
Mata wa maha, He who missed hope.
My head felt like a leaden weight when I raised it. A shadow loomed a few steps away from me, and my breath caught in my throat.
It was him.
Before me stood Babawa-Kunguru, broad-shouldered, marred with countless wounds. Tears seeped from his right eye, and a long scar ran through the left.
“When Babawa-Kunguru lost that last touch of hope,” he said, “he knew the deepest of miseries and the gravest of losses. Babawa-Kunguru became the Keeper of Sorrows, and his grief became his bindings.”
I couldn’t help the pity creeping into my soul, but I crushed it mercilessly. “You... you brought us here for this,” I whispered. “To cast your own sorrows–your shackles–upon us. A whole village, chased here so your curse could bind us in your stead.”
His shaven scalp glistened in the flickering light. His tearing eye gazed at me.
“But... but why the offerings?”
“To see that Babawa-Kunguru is no demon, no leper that deserved to be shunned.”
“I could see your memories now–”
“Without the offering, yes. And you barely survived it. I couldn’t have let you perish earlier. I needed the offerings to show you what you would have never understood.”
I stared at him. My words dripped of anger. “You don’t need me anymore, then.”
He shook his head. “Your people will bear my final shackle tonight. I have prepared it well.”
I clenched my fists. “You have tossed enough of your darkness at us, Elder, but you are not stealing my people’s hope.”
“We have a bargain.”
I shook my head. “None of those villagers had a hand in your misery,” my voice trembled, “and I’d die and take you with me before you harm them.”
His pearly teeth glowed. “You’re a good woman, Nwere. Did I ever tell you that my ravens chose to bring you here for this reason? Because you would do anything and everything for your people. I admit that I have given you no choices since we’ve met, and I regret that tonight is no different. You’d better stay out of my path, for if I unleash some of what I have gathered in my vaults at you, your body will crumble under the agony.”
My heart hammered my chest. “I don’t fear you.”
His smile widened. “Yes, you do. And if you don’t, then you should.”
Dense smoke boiled at his feet and swirled to engulf him. An ear-piercing wail rattled the tomb and threw me to the floor. The smoke formed into a giant one-eyed raven.
The shadows over the walls swelled and strangled the light, and a sudden heaviness fell over my body, pressing me to the floor. I struggled for a breath, but the air felt rusty and thick.
Then came the grief...
An unexampled flood of sadness drowned my mind and soul. I saw whole forests burning to the ground, and old men begging for mercy, and children screaming down gaping chasms in the land. I saw fallen good warriors and triumphant wicked sorcerers, cruel mothers and vile daughters, storms ravaging the fruitful trees and mindless wars wasting the work of honest farmers.
I pushed the floor to stand, but my arms buckled. I crawled to the window. Something warm dropped from my nose. I looked and saw bright blood dripping on the stone.
His ancient sorrow could decimate whole worlds, my mind screamed. He needed a whole village to break his bindings. What chance do I have of besting such a creature?
I pulled myself up to the window, twitching like a dying beast. The sun had gone down, and the dancing and drumming echoed through the grasslands. The villagers pulled the large hay-image of Abebe, ready to burn it in the high fire.
“The tastiest water is the puddle you stumble upon in the scorching desert,” whispered Babawa-Kunguru, “and the deepest sorrow is the one that shatters the rare moments of happiness. Look at your village closely now.”
His words suffocated me, but I clung to the window and kept my gaze on the villagers. Their joy flooded the grasslands. Infinite. Undying and unwavering. Singing and dancing that echoed off Mount Wawazee itself.
I opened my mouth, and with one desperate cry, I called some of their mirth to me.
The warmth came rushing, like a thirsty gazelle racing to the Nyamba. The darkness inside me writhed and wrestled with my heart, threatening to tear me apart, threatening to engulf me in flames, but I breathed in the villagers’ laughter.
Babawa-Kunguru growled. I turned to him.
The villagers’ painted faces smile, their bodies dance in circles, wider and wider, chanting and clapping.
I focused the warmth inside me into a bright halo that bounced off the walls. The Father of All Ravens roared at me, his breath chilled my face, his single eye burned like a firestorm.
A tall hunter jumps to dance before his brethren and jiggles his shoulders in silly moves. They cackle and join him.
The halo filled the room and flooded the shadows. The furious Elder cawed and charged at me. I threw myself to the floor. His body struck the wall behind me, dust rained upon us from the ceiling.
Three children run between the dancing legs, racing together, daring each other. One of them smiles, her mouth is missing a tooth, still waiting to grow in time.
A shriek of agony burst behind me and pushed my body forth. I snatched a stray rock and twisted around, ready to throw myself at the beast...
...but he was nowhere to be seen.
My eyes darted around. I spotted a grimy raven staring at me from the far window.
I whispered between my breaths, “Listen... listen to them outside. They would never bear those shackles in your stead. Not after what they have been through. You pushed them to the edge of death countless times on the trail here. They lost everything and everyone. Now they see their mere survival as a blessing.”
The bird cawed at me, its talons clutching the stone.
I dropped the rock. “I shield myself with my people’s glee.”
The raven eyed me for a few heartbeats. Nothing could be heard except my panting and the song outside. “May Babawa-Kunguru see a hint of such sheer joy in his darkest of hours,” I whispered, and I meant it.
The raven cawed again. A subtle droplet escaped its right eye, or perhaps I imagined so.
It then spread its wings and rode the wind.
I raised myself to the window. The image of Abebe was now a titanic torch, its flames stretching wider than the branches of the great tree, casting a glowing patch over the land.
And the villagers’ ecstasy burned even brighter.