The Eternal Song, Part Seventeen: Nightfall

Awiyan counted the stars in the clear sky above the foothills. The familiar patterns of the constellations gave her comfort in a world where so much was changing. She could sense the uncertainty from the villagers around her, rising like wisps of fog from damp grass. Even though they had chosen to hold the Midsummer festivities outside the forest, they still carried their own clouds around with them. For as long as she could remember, Awiyan had seen others’ emotions in this way, as visual details that seemed no less real than their hair or clothing.

The feasting had ended some time ago, when every last scrap had been eaten. By tradition, the dancing always finished at nightfall, when the villagers assembled to hear the wisdom of the Grandmothers. Tonight, however, the Eldest’s chair on the raised central platform stood empty. At first Awiyan had thought that perhaps Hulda, so recently become the village’s leader, had planned a brief silence to honor Eldest-that-was. But more time passed, and still Hulda remained deep in conversation with Riadne, who stood writing intently on strips of bark by torchlight. Every now and then Hulda interjected a few words, her voice too low for anyone else to hear.

Several of the children already had fallen asleep in the grass. Awiyan counted the stars in five more constellations before Hulda finally made her way to the platform where the other Grandmothers waited. Ignoring the comfortable chair set up for her, Hulda remained standing while she addressed the restless, whispering crowd.

“Riadne saw the unicorn on the mountain, in the setting sun.”

Instantly the villagers fell silent. Hulda went on talking, her authoritative voice pitched to carry easily through the assembled group.

“His coming at such a time tells us what we already know—that the island is no longer a safe home given to us by the Gods. Our valley has been taken from us. If we stay in the forest, we starve. We cannot flee to other lands because we have lost our ancestors’ craft of shipbuilding; and even if we could learn it again, the settlers’ ships now control the seas. We cannot fight the settlers because we are too few and their weapons too strong. All of this means that we have been left with one choice only—to leave the forest and ask the settlers if we may live among them.”

A furious buzz of conversation followed that statement. A man’s deep voice rose above the others. “And what’s to stop them from shooting us all? We saw last year what sort of mercy they have, didn’t we?”

Hulda waited until the crowd had quieted a little before she spoke again. “We can send out some of our boys first—young enough so that they will not be seen as a threat, but strong enough to be of use in the fields. When they have learned the language and ways of the settlers, they can bring the rest of us to live with them.”

Standing not far from the platform, Iwai looked as if he might have wanted to say something; but he only put his head down and shuffled his feet. After a year of hunger and hiding from the settlers, Iwai had lost much of his earlier brashness.

Tahu-at, glancing from his little brother to the group of Grandmothers, shifted his weight uneasily from one leg to the other. Then he said what Iwai had most likely been thinking. “The settlers will make slaves of our boys.”

Addressing him directly, Hulda softened her voice. “I do not make this decision lightly. We have reached a time when we must act, however painful it may be; and I shall not let the People perish because I failed to do my duty. If our boys are made slaves, then they will serve as they must—until the day comes when they are no longer seen as slaves, but as sons.”

Wiilu, her pregnancy just beginning to show under the frayed and shapeless dress she wore, stepped forward and spoke with her head high. “They should be sons of the People.”

Some of the villagers muttered in agreement, clenching their fists. Others stood passively, without speaking, as if they were not yet able to comprehend Hulda’s decision or were resigned to it. Awiyan looked out over the assembled tribe—her people, all of them, and this might be the last time she would see them together. Then, without conscious thought, the images in her mind shifted, and she found herself standing at the front of the platform and speaking in the high clear voice of prophecy.

“The unicorn chose to walk with Riadne. She is the one who will carry our traditions forward into the ages to come. When the People leave the forest, she will stay behind to tend the Earth Mother’s temple. In each generation, the children will be taught not only the settlers’ language and writing, but ours as well; and there will be girls sent to the mountain to serve in the temple and to take Riadne’s place after she is gathered to the Gods. The People will endure, no matter what burdens we must bear.”

Although she still felt the night air and smelled the torches’ smoke, Awiyan saw before her a bright midday scene from a far distant future, in which two girls in strange clothing stood in the valley laughing and whistling to each other in the People’s language. She felt the presence of the Gods in this moment more deeply than ever before, taking away the emptiness that had plagued her for the past year and leaving her with a light, joyful feeling, as if she could simply choose to leave her body and float above the earth.

Then some of the women were helping her up from the floor of the platform—it seemed she had fallen without knowing it. Hulda’s firm hands guided her into the Eldest’s chair. She tried to rise from it, meaning to say something about this breach of protocol; but she couldn’t quite remember how to do such mundane tasks as standing and talking.

Hulda gave her an understanding smile. “I expect the Gods won’t mind if you sit for a moment.”

Continue to Part Eighteen

Part Sixteen: Unicorn.
Part Fifteen: Ebb Tide.
Part Fourteen: Light.
Part Thirteen: Pilgrim.
Part Twelve: Priestess.
Part Eleven: Scout.
Part Ten: Lost.
Part Nine: Mountain.
Part Eight: Forest.
Part Seven: Shards and Dust.
Part Six: Warning.
Part Five: Gifts.
Part Four: Midsummer.
Part Three: Hunters or Hunted.
Part Two: Rehearsal.
Part One: Beauty.

on 08/17/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | No Comments | Read More

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