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Fantasy Fiction Science Fiction

Kane’ Hezna shivered in the open doorway and sipped the strong, steaming zoombi. Her wrinkled, spotted hands held the warm drinking bowl close to her chest. Not even the oldest farmer in the Golden Marshes could remember such frigid sunrises this early in the harvest season. The change in weather concerned Hezna so much that she had taken to staying up late with her young daughter, Zenzi, teaching her to read the wisdom scrolls that were under Hezna’s care. She hoped that, perhaps, together, they could discover what might be happening. 

As the twin suns began to rise, Hezna searched for the shadowy images of the moons, which no longer shone brightly, being at the end of their waning. She had told Zenzi to watch them closely, guessing that a Darkening was approaching. Could that explain the weather? Why hadn’t she studied the scrolls long ago? 

But, she thought, why would she have bothered? The weather had always been mild in the Golden Marshes during her lifetime. The legendary killer winters, called Kuds in the old tongue, were not taken seriously. They were just fire circle stories.

The weather was concerning many of the villagers, too. They lined up at her hut, asking if they should bring in the harvest early, or bring the cattle in from pasture, or double their winter fodder and firewood. Kane’ Hezna thought about how unprepared she felt for such concerns.  

As scroll room guardian, or shasvilikane’, Hezna had been trained to protect the scrolls. She felt pride in the initiative she had taken to improve their durability. And, she considered the copies she had made of damaged scrolls to be better than the originals. She believed her own grasp of the old tongue to be the best of any shasvilikane’ in generations. Her work and skill led her to discover the ancient zoombi rite that she used to commune with the Ancestors. She may not know everything about the Kud, but was there anyone wiser in the village? She thought not. 

And yet, her knowledge wasn’t enough, she told herself. She believed that she should have done more than guarding and maintaining all these years. As the zoombi coursed through her like comforting fire, she chided herself for having been lazy and complacent. 

She intended, therefore, to read all of the scrolls in her possession as quickly and thoroughly as possible. She had already enlisted Zenzi as her apprentice, teaching her to read and write. Together, they had begun recording their own scrolls, summaries of the most important information. And she would perform the zoombi rite more frequently, even though it frightened her every time. She needed answers from the Ancestors.

Kane’ Hezna could feel her face tingling and her tongue numbing as she wiped drool on her sleeve. She stumbled sideways, catching herself against the door frame, zoombi sloshing onto the floor. Zenzi, who was tall and strong, supported her mother and eased her down to the cushions. She had been nearby, recording the latest movements of the moons in relation to the suns, and watching over her mother to protect her from serious injury during the rite.

Zenzi shook her head and scowled at her mother’s drunkeness, her tidy black braids swaying. “I worry that you have begun to drink too much zoombi, mother. It is changing you.”

 Kane’ Hezna simply shrugged. “The Ancestors don’t visit unless I drink it.” But she knew Zenzi was right. She had changed. She rarely smiled anymore, and seemed to always be in a foul mood.

Zenzi scoffed, pausing in her work, studying her mother. “Why would our Ancestors need you drunk? Zoombi is going to kill you, Mother. You grow weaker after each rite.”

“You exaggerate, child,” Kane’ Hezna retorted. But, again, she thought her daughter was closer to the truth than she wanted to admit. Zoombi was harsh, and she did not like how it made her feel.

Examining the moon scroll she had been working on, Zenzi, changed the subject. “The moons are close together now, and they are approaching the position of the twin suns. I believe you are correct, Mother. There will be a Darkening, and I think it will be very soon.”

The older woman said nothing, just nodded, her daughter’s voice a murmur now. It took concentration to hear and understand. Darkening. Both moons blocking both suns.

“The Kud will follow,” Zenzi mumbled almost to herself, just on the edge of Hezna’s hearing. “The Kud -” 

It was warm and bright in Kane’ Hezna’s waking dream. A fragrant breeze tussled the grasses of a flower-filled meadow. Hezna’s hair was long and shiny black, and she pulled strands of it out of her mouth with her lithe fingers. She was amazed to see that her hands were smooth and spotless - her nails clean and unbroken.  

The Ancestors usually sent three visitors during the zoombi rite. Why three, Hezna could not guess. This time, the first visitor turned out to be Kane’ Geert, the shasvilikane’ during Hezna’s apprenticeship. Kane’ Geert had been a haggard, bent crone for all of Hezna’s memory, bound to a walking stick. In the dream, however, she was tall and her nearly translucent smock flowed around her as she twirled to face Hezna. Her words, although spoken in a clear, bright voice, were ominous. 

“The greatest Kud in twenty lifetimes approaches, Hezna. Do you imagine that you are prepared?” Kane’ Geert’s gaze was dismissive, as if Hezna had been a great disappointment to her.

“If I am not ready, then it is only because you did not prepare me. I -”

You,” Kane’ Geert interrupted, “have always made excuses for yourself. You must take ownership of your actions - or lack thereof. Leaders do not cast blame. Leaders act.”

Chastened, Hezna was quiet, trying to think. She had a vision of frozen, flooded marshland, dead fish, rotten fruit, and huts destroyed by ice and snow. 

“We must seek shelter, and higher ground,” she said.  

Kane’ Geert nodded, “Get to it, girl. Finally become shasvilikane’ and save as many of the Marshers as -” 

“Finally become?!” Hezna interrupted her, face flush with anger and confusion, “I have been shasvilikane’ since the day of your death, have I not?!” 

“You do not even know the meaning of the word.” Kane’ Geert turned and disappeared as if she had been blown asunder, bit by bit, in the wind.

The next visitor took Kane Hezna’s breath away. Bendo, the love of her life and father of her only child, stood bearded and strong before her, spear in hand. He had a young boar, freshly killed and field dressed, draped across his broad shoulders. Hezna tried to go to him, to embrace him and kiss him. But as she advanced, his image retreated. His smile showed understanding and empathy.

“Zenzi is in danger,” Bendo said, his voice deep with love and compassion. “She is not prepared for what awaits her.”

Hezna began to sobbing, both longing for his touch and fearful for her daughter. “I will protect her,” she insisted.

Bendo’s voice spoke with authority. “You know you will not be there to protect her, Hezna.” He paused again, looking through her at something in the distance. His expression progressed from concern to love to happiness. “She is smart, like you. And stronger. But she is not ready. You must train her as shasvilikane’ before it is too late. You have very little time.”

His gaze fell on her again, but he seemed farther away. Hezna could feel herself starting to panic. She screamed, “Bendo! Why can I not protect Zenzi?” 

She could barely hear his words as he turned into mist, “Don’t pretend not to know, Hezna. Train her soon.” And he was gone.

Kane’ Hezna wailed in agony, beating her chest and pulling at her hair, tortured. How could her life have been such a failure? She cried so deeply and so long that she did not notice the arrival of her last visitor, whose breathing was loud and labored. 

Looking up, she noticed that the suns’ light had disappeared behind the shadows of the double moons. The Darkening was upon her in her dream. The wind picked up and grew icy. 

A face full of agony and sickness appeared in an instant just inches from her own, making her jump in fear. It was a dying man with bleeding gums, red and yellow eyes, and discolored, flaky skin. 

“Hezna, save me! You must save me!” The harsh voice was low and wet with spittle. “I am dying and yet you do nothing.” The old man’s face pulled back to reveal a naked, shivering, skeletal body full of sores and scabs. 

“Why, Hezna? Why?!” The old man hacked up wet blobs of gore and smeared his mouth across his bare, blotched forearm.

She grew angry. “I care for the scrolls. I am shasvilikane’. What else would you have me do?”

The old man smiled through his pain. “Stupid girl,” he said. “Read the scrolls carefully. Kane’ does not mean caretaker.” And his smile disappeared, replaced with a grim, stern scowl.”Kane’ means commander.”

Hezna struggled to breathe, hands on the sides of her head, unable to make eye-contact with the horrid old man.

“Who are you? How do you know this?”, she asked, the vision beginning to fade, the sound of a familiar voice intruding, making it hard to hear the old man’s answer.

“I am your Ancestor, girl. I did not survive the Kud because my shasvilikane’ did not lead. You must lead!” And he was gone. 

Kane’ Hezna struggled for breath. She was soaking wet with sweat and shivering. At some point, a thick hide was draped over hear shoulders, and someone was brushing her wiry, gray hair out of her face. Slowly and painfully, her breathing became easier.

 A soft voice called to her, “Mother? Mother, can you hear me?”

Kane’ Hezna opened her eyes to dusky darkness. Zenzi was there, wiping her face with a cold, damp cloth. “How long did I sleep, child?”

“You did not sleep. I was afraid you …”

“But it is already night…”, then Hezna realized her mistake, “…it is the Darkening. Ancestors protect us.” 

“Yes, while you were having your visions, the moons blocked the suns.”

Hezna shivered, but stood, “So it has begun.”

“What are we to do?”

“We must prepare to leave the Golden Marshes,” Kane’ Hezna said.

“Mother,” Zenzi pleaded, holding both the old woman’s hands in hers, looking into Hezna’s half-closed eyes. “You are so weak and ill. How will you travel? You need rest.”

“There is no time, sweetness,” Hezna said. “We have so much to do and no time. The Kud is here.”

Zenzi said nothing. Hezna watched her daughter rise to her full height, both hands on her mouth, staring out the door into the cold greyness of the moon shadows. 

She understands, Hezna said silently to herself. Good.

The Darkening soon passed. After two hours, the late-morning sky was blue and cloudless. The Villagers did not, however, return to their normal chores. For the rest of the day, every common gathering place hosted Marshers of all ages; they were gossiping or worrying or exaggerating, telling tales and lies. 

Zenzi, at her mother’s urging, spread the word that Kane’ Hezna would speak at a gathering after second sunset. 

Hezna scanned the faces at the gathering, mentally placing them into three groups. The smallest group, mostly older couples and mothers of very young children, listened to her news intently. The Darkening was an omen to them and they believed the Kud had arrived. They were ready to follow Kane’ Hezna to a safer future.  

An old hunter in the crowd, Chaled, spoke up, “I know the forest well enough. There are hills on the other side with game. And there is room to build sturdy shelters from rock and wood.” Chaled would be a comforting guide, Hezna thought.

The second and largest group was a mixture of adults, most of them young. When Hezna told her story, they rolled their eyes and audibly scoffed, calling for proof. A great many in this group viewed Kane’ Hezna as a religious zealot, and therefore thought she was crazy. 

“How do we know you’re not just drunk,” called one sneering woman, earning laughter from those around her.

“How can we trust the fever dreams of an old witch,” added a young man Hezna recognized.

Hezna did not honor these insults with a response. Instead, she invited them to examine the scrolls for themselves. But she knew few of them could read, and none knew the old tongue - a dead language to all present except Hezna and her daughter.  

She believed a few wise souls in this second group might follow Chaled on the off chance that Hezna’s predictions had any truth in them. Most, however, would likely delay making decisions until it was too late. 

The third group were those known to be unstable in their heads or have serious health challenges. Some stayed drunk on zoombi. A few had damaged minds and did not understand who or where they were. The rest were too sick, too tired, or too stubborn to abandon their shelters for travel. Hezna believed all of them would perish.

As loud as she could, Kane’ Hezna ended her part in the gathering with one final statement. “Our group will leave in five sunrises. Chaled has offered to guide us. All are welcome. Five sunrises and we depart.” She turned her back to the gathering, bent over in obvious pain, and coughed into her handkerchief. There was blood.

Hezna made it back to her shelter with Zenzi’s help, and the young woman lowered her down to her cushions. She immediately fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming of dead villagers, their bodies trapped under the ice of the frozen marsh. 

For the next two days, Hezna guided Zenzi through the scrolls. They discussed and cross-referenced from scroll to scroll, and created summaries of the few Kud histories that they found. It was depressing and frightening work. The oral legends told stories of starvation and death by freezing. The scrolls, however, added a new horror - sickness. During the worst Kud described in the scrolls, sickness had killed more people than starvation and cold combined. This Kud might be worse still. 

On the third sunrise, two days before Chaled was to lead them out of the Marshes towards the dark and unmapped forests, Kane’ Hezna was too weak to rise out of her cushions. She was wheezing and coughing. 

Zenzi did not panic. Hezna watched her reference the scrolls and prepare an unction and a special tea. She allowed her daughter to administer them, but in her heart she knew it was no use. Bendo had warned her. 

She thought it strange that she felt a calmness even though her own time was running out. She felt that Zenzi was gaining wisdom and strength of conviction every day. Hezna watched the girl become a woman, saw understanding and determination in Zenzi’s eyes and actions, and felt a profound sense of relief and serenity in the realization of it.

Hezna started her last zoombi rite on the night before the fourth sunrise. She wanted one last meeting with the Ancestors. Zenzi did not protest. 

There was no meadow this time; no warm wind, no scent of lavender. She was battered by a frigid wind that howled in her head and froze her bare feet. On the crest of a nearby hill, but far enough so that she could not hear his voice, her husband Bendo was waving his arms and beckoning to her. He was trying to tell her something, but she was unable to hear, and was frozen in place. He was the only visitor. Had the Ancestors abandoned her?

She opened her eyes to dim light and her daughter’s soft, trembling voice. Breathing was painful. 

“Mother,” Zenzi was whispering through tears, “mother, are you in pain?” Kane’ Hezna smiled, squeezed Zenzi’s hand as hard as she could, and spoke for the last time.

“I am happy,” she croaked, using her tongue to moisten her lips. “I go to be with your father.” She smiled thinly and briefly. Then her face grew grave and serious. Her eyes widened.

“You are so beautiful, Kane’ Zenzi.” She closed her eyes.

Hezna felt warmth for the first time in days. And there was light. A crowd of Ancestors, on the edge of the great forest and dressed in flowing tunics and summer sandals, held gathering bags filled with berries and fruit. Close to her, Bendo held her hand and smiled.  

“They will make it,” Hezna told him.

“Thanks to you,” Bendo agreed. 

April 11, 2024 04:17

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1 comment

Emilie Ocean
11:56 Apr 16, 2024

Great story! I loved it :D


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