history lesson-


by Blitzgal

At the outskirts of the village, far from the domain of men, the witch women seethed--spreading their magic across earth and sky. At center was Akala, who had witnessed the births of four chiefs and outlived them all. Hers was the power of creation itself, and no man dared cross her path. To meet her gaze was a danger none could abide, for it was said she could steal a man's staff with a soft breath and flash of teeth.

But not even Akala had the power to destroy the evil that plagued their people. It slunk and crawled in the shadows, out of her glowing sight. For this unforgivable weakness she was banished to the edges of society. While the priests were also helpless in the face of evil, it was Akala who paid the price for their mortal vulnerability. Only women dared visit the witch and share her powers of healing and sight.

That morning Akala had confined herself to the steam hut and refused to emerge for meals or meditation. She was compelled to cleanse herself, she told her apprentices, after the evil work that had been done. The three girls in her charge were confused by her words, but knew that Akala saw things in the air and the earth that most humans ignored.

The sun had only just reached its peak in the sky when a group of women approached Akala's hut. Maibe, the youngest of the witch's apprentices, was busy cooking the noon meal in the hopes that her mistress would agree to eat something. She did not notice their visitors until Uri emerged from the main hut behind her.

"The wives of Yafeu draw near," Uri advised her sister.

Glancing up, Maibe was alarmed to see the prostrate form of a young girl cradled in the arms of the chief's four wives. "Fetch Akala," she ordered.

"But Maibe, she does not wish--"

"Tell her that Yafeu wills it," Maibe snapped.

Rising to her feet, Maibe quickly removed the clay pot from the fire's embers and set it aside. If the child was ill, they would need the fire to draw out the disease. By the time she stood straight again, the wives had reached Akala's hearth.

"We wish to see the witch," the first wife said. Her mother had given her a name, a blessed title spoken with love and respect. But now and forever she would be known only as First Wife, the most favored of Yafeu's lovers.

"I am here," Akala's husky voice spoke.

Maibe crouched to the ground immediately in deference to her superior. The older witch stepped past her, pressing a comforting hand to her shoulder in acknowledgement of the respect she'd been paid.

"My daughter is sick," said First Wife. "She does not move...she does not awaken."

Akala gazed into the woman's fearful eyes for many long moments, as if searching for something. First Wife was too frightened to look away, but soon began to shiver when the witch's gaze grew too heavy to bear.

"You gave her to the priests," Akala said flatly. "They asked for your flesh, and you gave it to them freely."

First Wife's mouth dropped open in surprise. "They seek only to help our people," she explained.

"Bah!" Akala exclaimed. "They invoke spirits they cannot possibly understand. Your daughter is possessed."

The other wives exchanged worried glances. What would the witch see if she looked into their own eyes? They cast their gazes down toward the sandy earth at their feet, terrified of what secrets might spill out of their souls.

"Put her here, near the fire," Akala commanded. "We must see what may be done for her now."

After the child was placed on the ground, Akala gestured for her apprentices to help her kneel. Maibe slung one arm around the witch's narrow torso and supported her descent. With Uri's assistance, Akala unwrapped the swath of furs covering the girl, exposing her naked body to the sun.

Maibe gasped when she saw the ragged scars crisscrossing the child's dusky flesh. It looked as though she had been attacked by a wild animal. Claws and teeth had ripped through her skin. The wounds were already healing, marking her with puckered white scars that might never fully disappear.

"When did this occur?" Maibe asked, glancing up at First Wife.

Akala paid no mind to this line of questioning, and Maibe guessed that she already knew the answer.

"Two nights ago," First Wife responded. She seemed unable to look upon her daughter's injuries, and stared across the landscape instead.

"Uri, please find Eshe and prepare for the ceremony," Akala murmured. She continued to examine the girl's body, and did not turn to be sure her request was obeyed.

The wives glanced among themselves in confusion, obviously wondering what Akala intended to do. But both Uri and Maibe understood that only an exorcism would remove the darkness from the child's soul.

"You daughter has been violated," Akala explained. "Her essence is polluted. She is lost within the darkness inside of her, and will never emerge into the light until that darkness is removed."

First Wife suddenly wailed in grief, her head falling back against her shoulder as she railed against the gods. In a flash, Akala rose to her feet with an agility that surprised them all.

"Do not curse the gods," she hissed. "Foolish woman! It is men who have done this to your child. Men! You can only hope I am able to reverse the damage they have caused."

Darkness fell before the ritual was complete. Writhing naked in the firelight, the old woman contorted her body into seemingly impossible positions as she danced around the child. Uri and Maibe kept the tempo of her movement by beating their palms on the hides of impalas stretched tightly across a wooden frame. They sang the words of light and creation, and whispered lustful encouragements to the demons within the girl's body. These creatures of darkness would be unable to resist their promises of pleasure.

Hours passed before Akala finally stopped. Facing the fire, she arched her back and twisted her torso to stare down at the unconscious girl behind her. Something had begun to move beneath the child's skin.

Maibe and Uri fell quiet, while Eshe stood nearby in case Akala needed her support. The wives stared in abject horror as the wriggling thing inside of the girl traveled up from her innards to tremble just beneath her ribcage. Shouting in the heavy silence, Akala whirled and bent above the girl. She thrust her hand toward the quiet form beneath her. When her fingers met with solid flesh, the witch paused only briefly before pressing even further. The wives screamed when Akala's hand disappeared into the girl's chest. First Wife rose to her feet, but Eshe was there to push her back.

Akala groaned in pain. Muttering to herself, she began to chant words of power. Maibe and Uri frowned, unsure of how they should respond. Aware of their confusion, Akala glanced over her shoulder at them and shook her head. Several agonizing moments passed before the witch finally began to pull away from the child. When her hand emerged from the girl's flesh, it was covered in a thick black substance. It appeared to be blood, but Maibe knew it was the essence of the evil thing that had polluted the child's soul.

Standing, Akala glanced down at her arm. The viscous fluid did not fall away from her outstretched hand, but quickly surged up toward her elbow, desperate to find solace within her body. Twisting to face the fire once more, Akala shouted again and threw the substance into the flames. The fire seethed outward as she did, flaring with a tremendous power. A low scream arched out of the orange flames and quickly vanished into the night air.

Maibe spotted an odd glimmer within the glowing embers. Leaning forward, she caught Akala's eye and tilted her head in question. The woman gazed at her impassively, but seemed to pass a silent message her way. Taking a deep breath, Maibe jumped to her feet and stood between the hearth and the cluster of wives. Her wide wrap dragged against the earth and sufficiently blocked the fire from their view. They did not seem to notice the movement, however, for the child had awakened at last.

First Wife pulled her daughter into her arms, crooning wordlessly. The girl stared up at her mother in confusion, then reached down to touch the slashes crossing her arms and chest. When she saw Akala standing over them, she seemed to cringe away in fear. A visit to the witch was not understood to be a pleasant experience.

"Uri," Akala said, gesturing for her furs. Her apprentice draped the heavy material over her shoulders, and Akala wrapped it tightly around her slender frame.

"You must not let the priests see her again," Akala advised. "She is a tool of their creation, and they will seek to corrupt her powers."

First Wife stared at her suspiciously. Maibe knew in that instant that even though Akala had saved the child's life, Yafeu would allow the priests to train the girl as they saw fit, and his wives would not dare to argue.

Shaking her head, Akala said, "Leave, then. But mark my words. As Woman bends to the rule of Man, only pain may follow."

After the girl was dressed and a small payment presented, the wives took their leave of Akala's hearth. The old woman watched them go, her shoulder sagging slightly. No matter how stoic she appeared, Maibe knew that their suspicion cut her deeply. The priests had gained much authority in recent years, and soon Akala would not receive any visitors at all. The tribe had begun to believe in the power of men, and nothing she could do would sway their opinion on the matter.

"What is it, old Mother?" Uri gasped, staring into the fire.

Maibe turned to follow her gaze. Deep within the flames, a strange object gleamed brightly, red like the heat of a burning torch.

"The fires of Creation have given us this gift," Akala explained. "With our sacrifice we have created light from darkness. It is a weapon for the girl. One day she will use it to sever herself from the bounds of Man. Take it from the fire, Maibe."

Expelling her breath, Maibe glanced at Akala in alarm. "Old Mother?" she asked.

Akala only nodded and gestured forward. Maibe bit her lip when she realized she was trembling. She did not dare show her fear in front of the others. They knew she was favored among the apprentices, and secretly loathed the day she would take Akala's place.

Steeling herself for the pain that would follow, Maibe plunged her arm into the fire. At first, the agonizing blast of heat was more than she could bear. But to remain in the flames at that point would only mean her death. Grasping the solid object, she quickly hefted it out of the fire.

The night air cooled her flesh instantly, and the true pain began. Maibe screamed as her flesh sizzled with deep burns, the skin beginning to melt along the handle of her prize. But a moment later a strange white light enveloped the weapon. As it grew in strength, it rose up along her arm, chilling the injured flesh. A sharp flash forced the others to cover their eyes. And then the weapon was silent again...merely a heavy weight lying dead in her hand.

"Akala," Uri whispered, forgetting the witch's proper title. "It is beautiful."

"It is death," Akala said simply. "The banishment of evil, to be wielded only by Woman. We must not let the priests learn of its existence. If they do, they will take from her, and pervert its power."

Akala stepped closer to Maibe, who stared down at her arm in amazement. The terrible burns were fading, and the pain had vanished. "It should be protected," she agreed.

Smiling gently, Akala placed a hand on her shoulder. "You understand what you must do, then? Its essence has spilled into you. Only you are strong enough to keep it safe. No man's eyes must ever fall upon the weapon, not until she requires it. Until that time...it must be hidden."

A flash of anger burned inside of her. The object in her hand was death, as Akala had said. It signaled her demise. Maibe knew she would never again see her sister, or watch the sun rise across the village rooftops. "Eshe is much stronger," she whispered, trying to persuade the witch to choose another.

Akala shook her head. "Keep it hidden. If you fall, elect another. She will come to you one day, and you will be free."

The sound of shouts carried across the village, and Akala's face hardened. "The priests have sent their guards," she said. Shoving Maibe, she ordered, "Go now."

Breathlessly, Maibe merely had time to grab a large fur to wrap around the weapon before she was forced to race away from the huts. She knew she should put as much distance between her and the village as she could, but the sounds of a skirmish made her brush along the edge of the settlement. Keeping near the shadows, she slowed only when she was able to see the group of men circling Yafeu's wives. To her amazement, they shoved First Wife to her knees. While the girl watched nearby, the guards thrust their spears into her mother, impaling her.

Maibe stopped and leaned against the trunk of a tree. She went unnoticed in the darkness as the girl attacked the men who'd killed her mother. The child screamed in impotent fury. When two of the men attempted to grab her by the arms, she turned on them. Maibe watched in shock as the girl broke the first man's neck and forcibly threw the other against the wall of a hut. It took six more guards to finally still her rage.

"She is a tool," Maibe whispered, and understood what Akala had meant. The priests would use the girl to fight the dark creatures. To do this, they placed a demon within her.

But it had been too much for one human to survive. The child had been lost in the darkness, with no chance of ever finding her way. When Akala removed the most brutal aspect of her soul, the girl was finally able to find her voice.

Such a tool could have but one master. A mother would distract and engage a girl, giving her love when only hate and fury would destroy the darkness. It was as men viewed the world, at any rate. So the priests removed such distraction. And now the girl was bound to them, bound just as tightly as Akala had predicted.

Maibe squeezed the weapon in her hands. Her challenge was greater than she ever imagined. But the child's...the child's life was far worse. Until the day she found her strength, she would bend to the rule of Man. Maibe grieved for Akala's loss of power. If only the women had found another way to destroy the demons. But Maibe could do nothing more to help. Helpless, she turned away from the village and continued on her way. She would keep it hidden until it was needed. Maibe fervently hoped that time was soon.