“But what if?” I asked as my mother pulled my long black hair into a tight braid.
My mother chuckled as she pulled at loose strands of hair and tucked them into the braid. “We all worry about that,” She whispered, she glanced over at the panther sleeping in the sunlight spilling through the open window of our adobe hut. “You think I knew Shadowseeker would appear to me on that day,” She said, the black panther opened his golden eyes and stretched proudly before joining them at the clouded mirror.
“No buts, you will do fine, it will come to you as they do for everyone.” My mother said as she pinned the braid to the crown of my head. “Now my dear Riley, you are ready.” I sighed, I did not feel ready, I pulled at the deer skin dress my mother had made special for the ceremony. I followed her mother and the Shadowseeker from the hut and into the bright sun and the savannah heat, glancing back through the door of my childhood home one last time, this would be the last time I would call this little hut home.
The village spread out before us, little adobe huts, larger brick houses near the center as one got closer to the town square, the long house pointing straight north from the town square grew large before me as I followed my mother silently through the village. Youngsters, not yet considered adults in the village stared at us as we made our way down the dusty road.
Every able adult in the village was gathered in the large open common area around the well in the center of the village. I did not want to leave my mother’s side, I was content with hiding in the crowd, I was not ready to become an adult. My mother took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes. My orange brown eyes full of tears ready to overcome me, and my mother’s amber eyes full of pride and hope for her daughter’s future, my future the coming days would determine my place among our people.
“You are an adult now,” My mother said proudly, “Join your friends,” Shadowseeker pushed his giant square head against my hip as my mother gently urged me from the crowd and into the open.
There were seventeen of us in total, I knew how many other I shared a birth season with, yet there were only eleven of us currently gathered around the well. I went straight for my closest friend. Shine stood with a grin on her dark face, her long dark hair had been braided and wound delicately around her head. Shine wore a fine leather dress decorated with the beads of her ancient family. The symbol of an eagle on the wing adorned her chest, every child in her family had eagles choose them as their partners.
I do not know why Shine was my friend, we were nothing alike. Shine came from the family of chiefs, her family was the wealthiest in the village, Shine was outgoing, loud and prideful. I was quiet, cautious and my mother was the only daughter of a hunter who had died when she was a girl, my own father had died when I was a baby leaving my mother young and widowed. My mother supported us with her sowing, she was good but the other seamstresses in the village would not let her move up to a better cliental.
“Aren’t you excited?” Shine asked elated, her singing voice hummed through the morning air.
I shrugged, “I am nervous,” I admitted.
“Not me,” Shine said, “I cannot wait to meet my eagle, I hope it will be a golden, that way it will be larger than my brother’s.” She looked at me and must have noticed the apprehension I was feeling, she sighed, “But I suppose it must be uncomfortable not knowing what will come to you.”
Over the next half hour, the rest of the young people to soon become adults arrived, and we were all gathered in a nervous hush around the village well. Around us were gathered the adults of the village and each of their animals, fur, feather and scale. Everyone was silent all awaiting the beginning of the ceremony. Once the ceremony began we were not to utter a word within the village until we had completed our rite.
“Welcome all,” The village chief called from the grand doors of the long house. Everyone shifted to better see the chief. The chief stood broad and tall at the top of the steps, he chest was tattooed and bare of any clothing, from his skirt hung the same beads that hung from Shine’s dress, a large golden eagle clung tightly to a leather bracer that covered the chief’s shoulder. He looked down at us, “Today is the first of the new season, today we celebrate your coming of age, today you will gain a companion, today you will hunt for the first time. Remember you may not return to the village until you have met and bound yourself to your new partner. You must also hunt and kill an animal to feed the village.” He looked straight at his daughter, Shine straightened her shoulders proudly. “We count on this hunt to feed us through the coming draught. Come and gather your pack for your journey and a weapon of your choosing.” The group went forward to the steps of the long house, we each picked up a leather bundle and tied it to our backs, then came the choice of a weapon to hunt with. I stared at the piles of weapons before me, bundles of spears, bows and arrows, bolas with clubs, we had all been trained for season to be proficient with each of these weapons, but now it would determine what I could hunt, antelope and birds were easily brought down with well-placed bola tosses, arrows could take down just about anything that you could hit, spears were for the large animals, the animals that enjoyed to hunt us back. I hesitated in choosing, but I finally reached for a bow and quiver of arrows, I tied the quiver to my belt and slung the bow over my shoulder.
A few moments later the chief called for the witchdoctors. We each knelt with our backs to the well as we had been instructed for the past season to do so, we bowed our heads and excepted the blessing from the witchdoctors. These women had always terrified me, with their crow partners, the animal skulls they wore to hide their faces and the small bones clinking together on their robes. They were respected by the village, next to the shaman and the chief they had the most power, they helped the babies be born, they cured illnesses with their magic, and they blessed those about to leave the village for the first time. The one shaman of the village stood on the well and called to the sky spirit to bless us, his raven flying in a circle opposite the crows of the witchdoctors.
The shaman began his prayer with the history of our people, “Long ago our people came from the sky, and one day we will return to the sky. When we first came to the dust we were alone, and then there were the beasts that joined man in the dust, we bound our hearts together, man and beast communicated and became brothers and sisters. We only hunt what we need, we only take what we need, we waste none and we return to the earth what we cannot use. This is our law, and once a season before the great draught we give of our people those that have come of age, to join our beast brethren and become one with them. We pray now to you great Sky Spirit who gave us life, let Father Sun and Mother Moon guide these young ones from the village that they may find what they seek, let our earth sister return them to us adults and one with thee.” He called. A witch doctor with a lion skull covering her face, stepped in front of me, she held in her hand a clay bowl with soft white clay, she dipped a wrinkled thumb into the clay and drew lines across my face.
“Blessed art thou daughter of the Moon,” She recited, “For thou will find peace in the wilderness, go forth and seek out that which will bind you to the earth and sky,” She chanted as she drew on my face, “Let your beast spirit guide you, let your human heart see, waste not of the gifts that we have been given, seek truth in the earth and in the sky,” She chanted, she paused at the end of the blessing, “You will lead many,” She ended my blessing, I did not understand, this was not part of scripture, I wanted to say something but I knew I could not, perhaps it was part of her magic, could she see into my future?
When all seventeen of us had clay on our faces and the Shaman was done with his prayer they spirit leaders of the village faded into the crowd. The chief once again stood and called to us. “You have received your blessing from the priest and priestesses, now choose your path.” The crowd parted along the four trails leaded from the village, “Leave us children, return to us adults, we know that some of you may not return but we hope that we see you all at the end of this trail, go with the Great Spirit.” He called.
I pushed myself from the ground, my knees hurt from kneeling for so long, I brushed the dust from my skirt and looked for my mother along one of the roads, she stood along the road leading to the west. She wanted what was best for me, she wanted me to go west, why was it the easiest path, would it lead be to a simple rabbit hunt, I looked at the other paths, there was great danger out on the savannah surrounding our village, we had all been told the stories since we were little. I was the victim of one such story, my father had been a hunter, he had chosen the wrong path one hunt and been killed by a lion.
What if I chose wrong now, the choice I made now would determine my future, I looked at my mother, there was a plea in her amber eyes. I looked past her to the west, I recalled the maps I had studied for seasons, to the west was the watering hole, the swamp lands, that would be the easiest place to hunt, but I did not want easy. To the north would be open savannah as well as to the east and south, but far in the east were the forbidden mountains, I had always wanted to see them.
I felt cruel as I did so but I turned my back on my mother and took the road leading east. I could see some of the adults looking from me to my mother, though she probably wanted to call out to me, she could not. I held my head high as my soft leather shoes stepped along the packed earth along the road. I followed the few others that had made this their path out of the village and into the beyond. I followed them until the village had faded onto the horizon.
I turned back only once, as the others split off on their own paths within the savannah, I could see the smoke from the afternoon cook fires but that was all. Will I make it back? I turned back to the savannah and kept walking straight, I wanted to see these forbidden mountains.
I searched for food as I went, hoping to see an antelope or a great bird, I saw none as I made my way east. The sun began to set and I felt I should find or make a shelter.
I found a hollow under a bush to take shelter, I decided now would be a good time to look through the bag of supplies. I laid the bag on the ground and loosed the ties that held it closed, the bag fell open and I sifted through the items that fell out.
An obsidian dagger, flint, a small empty water skin, and a gem, the gem I would give to my partner when it appeared, there was a small leather bag on a band for me to carry the gem in. I sighed, nothing to eat, I picked at the bark of the push I was under, and chewed it, whatever it as it tasted good at least.
“I certainly hope you are not eating that bush,” A voice called from outside the little hollow. I grabbed my bag and bundled it back together. I looked up to the empty eyes of a deer skull, I flinched away from the witch.
“Oh, I see you are on your spirit hunt,” He laughed, the young man pushed the skull back on his head. A tan skinned man with short dark hair stood over me, “I would spit that bark out if I were you it’s poisonous.” He said. I opened my mouth and scrapped the half-gnawed bark from my tongue. “My name is Luka what’s yours?” I hesitated, he looked close to my age but I knew that the magic Shaman and the witches possessed could make them appear younger. “You know you can speak you aren’t in the village anymore,” He said the raven that sat on his shoulder pecked his ear, “Oh yes I am sorry friend, this annoying feather head is Silver,”
“I am Riley,” I whispered, he smiled, and reached a hand down to me.
“I am pleased to meet you Riley. You must me hungry, I have a hut near here would you want to join me.” He held up his other hand, a rabbit dangled from a trap rope. My stomach growled, he grinned. “Come on there are no rules against getting help from those that live on the savannah.” I took his outstretched hand and he helped me from the hole. I fumbled with the ties on my bag as I followed him through the long grass. I tied it to my back and rushed after Luka, we came to a little mud hut a little while later.
“Welcome to my home,” Luka said, he snapped his fingers and a torch built into the wall burst to life. I flinched back, he let out a small chuckle. “Ah yes I forget you are not used to magic.” He said, “I apologize, I have only been out here for a few seasons but I forget how the villages see magic.”
“A necessary evil,” I whispered, it was what my mother had always called it, I looked over at him, his eyes were narrowed, in the light of the torch I could see that they were blue hinting of the sky on a late season day, when the mornings were cold and the days were warm. My comment had hurt him.
“I supposed that is how I saw it at one point too,” He said, “But that was before I met Silver here and my eyes were opened to the truth.”
“The truth about what exactly?” I ventured, he grinned at me as he pushed aside the dear skin flap that covered the doorway into his hut. I hesitated at first, I did not know this young man despite his friendly demeanor, he had magic he could make me see what he wanted me to see according to the stories I had heard. I could be walking into a cage or a pit, I took a deep breath, trust in your path, I thought as I stepped into the hut, he stepped in right after me and tied the deer skin to the edges of the doorframe to hold it shut.
He snapped his fingers again, a fire bloomed bright in the center of the hut. The hut was modest, a hammock hung against the back wall, shelves of skull helmets lined the roof, and a shelf of animal skin scrolls was organized neatly just inside the door. I noticed another shelf to the left of the fire with clay jars and bowls, some of them had things in them, herbs were drying over the shelf and a mortar and pestle lay well used on a stone slab next to the shelf.
He hung the rabbit on a rack and began to gut and skin it. He put the innards in a clay bowl for Silver and set it aside, the skin he lay on another rack. He speared the rabbit on a spit and hung it over the fire, he spun his finger in a circle causing the rabbit to gradually turn over the coals. He sat down on the hammock against the back of the house, he waved his hands and a second hammock hung itself next to the first. He gestured for me to take a seat, as he took the deer skull from his head and placed it on a shelf with other skulls. “So, you want to know the truth?” He asked.
“I don’t even know what you are talking about,” I stated as I hesitantly took a seat on the hammock.
He laughed and swung his legs causing his hammock to sway before laying down facing me, with his hand folded behind his head. “What do you know about magic?” He asked.
“That it’s what binds us to our partners, the witches and the shaman are the only ones that know how to harness it and use it. They use their magic to bless and protect us, but in the before they used to be powerful and evil, that they would curse those that did not follow their ways.” He nodded.
“Yes, that is what is taught but the elders isn’t it,” He hummed, “It’s more or less true but not the whole truth.” He sat up and leaned towards me. “What if I told you we all have magic within us, shaman and others, and that the Time Before was a great war of magic, and that at the end only those with ravens and crows were permitted to learn magic.” He said, I narrowed my eyes and shook my head.
I laughed, “If we all have magic then why aren’t we all partnered with ravens and crows?” I asked, Luka looked from me to Silver who only shook his head and went back to eating his rabbit meat.
Luka gestured to his partner, “You think I get my magic from him?” I shrugged, “No the fact that he came to me allowed me by law to be taught magic, you have magic within you now,” He said, “But the laws prevent you from being taught how to use it, our spirits do not determine our ability only what we can attain through our lives.” He held out a hand to me. “I will show you,” He said, impatiently he waved his hand at me, I stretched out a hand to him, he wrapped his strong grip around my wrist. “Look at the fire,” He told me, I did, “Look at it’s beauty, imagine that fire filling you up and over flowing from you, capture that feeling in your hand.” He said, he pushed my fingers down until my hand was a fist as I focused on the fire. “Now feel that fire in your hand, see it in your mind’s eye, a small flame that warms you and lights your way.” He said.
I looked at my hand, my fist was glowing, I opened my fingers with some hesitation, flames leapt from between them, I opened my fist and stared at the small flame that hovered above my palm but did not burn me, I could feel the heat of it against my face. My heart began to beat faster, fear welled up inside me, the heat began to build on my palm, I flinched in pain, I shook my hand quickly to put out the fire, the heat faded, as did the light.
“You cannot panic like that or your spells will not hold.” Luka sighed.
“It was an illusion something you put in my head,” I growled, he shrugged.
“If you choose to think that I cannot change your view.” He stated, he climbed from his hammock and went to the fire. He removed the rabbit from the fire and put it on the stone slab. He carved off mean and put it in a bowl, he handed me the bowl and made one for himself. “If you think it’s just an illusion try something else without me telling you what to do, all you have to do is see it in your mind to make it happen, those are the simplest spells.” He said as he picked at his food, licking the juices from his fingers.
I was thirsty, could I make water the same as I had the flame, I closed my fist and my eyes, I thought of the well back in the village, the water that was poured from the bucket into jars. I felt moisture running across my forearm and along my lap. I opened my eyes water was dripping from my closed first down my arm. “I need a pitcher,” I whispered, Luka looked at me, his eyes wide, he jumped from his seat to the shelf and brought a jar to me, I opened my hand over the jar and it filled within a moment. The water stopped when the pitcher was full. “How is this possible?” I asked, he laughed. “If it’s against the laws then why show me, how can I go back to living without it now that I know,” I demanded.
“Well you could become a witchdoctor,” I shivered, he laughed, “You don’t go back,” He stated, I looked over at him in shock, but he was eating as if he had commented on the weather.
“How can I not go back once my spirit walk is complete?” I demanded.
“Well let us see, you just do not go back,” He said his tone was patronizing, “What waits for you back there in the village?” He asked me.
“Will your mother survive without you, can she make a living, is she excepted by the community,” He asked.
I shrugged, “I suppose so, she is a talented seamstress,” I stated.
“Other than your mother what waits for you, are you betrothed, do you have a home or a carrier?” He asked.
I shook my head, once my hunt was over I would move into the women’s hut where all the single women in the village lived until marriage. “All that waits for me is the singles house,” I said, he chuckled.
“Oh yes the house with all the maidens awaiting a man to wed so that they can run his house while he hunts or mines.” He turned his dusky blue eyes to me, “Is that what you want out of life, to always be waiting on a man?” I shook my head. “As I thought when I first saw you, you are someone who wants more from life, you are a seeker of truth, a leader of many.” He said.
“What makes you say that?” I demanded, he looked at me curiously, “A leader of many, the witch who gave me my blessing said that at the end,” I stated, his eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened.
“She saw something in you as I do, she saw more than just a simple village life for you. Perhaps that is why the great spirit lead me to you.” He said. He put his empty bowl down and lay back in his hammock and watched me with narrow eyes. “So what now Riley Grassinger?” He asked.
“How do you know my family name?” I demanded, he shrugged. “Will you teach me?” I asked, a grin stretched across his face.
“I am not supposed to but I suppose I could as long as it never got back to the other shaman,” He stated.
“How would it if I do not go back?” I whispered.
“The one from your village comes to speak with me each moon, to check on me, I came from your village two seasons ago, when Silver came to me the shaman of the village turned me back to the savannah when I came home, he said that there can only be one shaman and it was a mistake that I had been shown the truth. He said I must live here away from the village until he dies, only then can I go home.” He sighed, “I am tired of waiting, I want to go somewhere else, I want to seek more of the truth.” He growled.
“Where can we find more?” I asked, he sighed, “Can we find more truth near the forbidden mountains?” I asked, he glared at me.
“What do you know of the forbidden mountains,” I shrugged.
“Nothing, only that if we see them on the horizon when we are hunting we have gone too far and we must turn back.”
“The truth is beyond the mountains, of the Time Before.” He said, my heart raced, to go beyond the mountains how far would that take us.
“Can I go with you?” I asked.
“You are not even an adult, you do not even have a companion,” He said.
“I am sure my partner will reveal itself to me as we travel,” I said, “There is no rule after all that says we have to be alone.” I stated, he grinned.
“I think I will enjoy being your companion, Riley,” He waved a hand at the fire causing it to dim, “If we travel we leave at dawn get some rest,” He said, rolling over in his hammock.