Guided by the light from Hyborea’s two crescent moons, Kedric crept through tangled jungle vegetation with gladiator stealth. He crouched behind a tree trunk and motioned for his troops to surround the targeted village. A hundred men would be in position before dawn broke in fifteen minutes.
Advancing this deep into the savage’s territory had been easy. Too easy. After their last raid, the tribe’s leader should have built defenses. That’s what Kedric would have done. But Kedric was an alpha gladiator and the Highland warlord. These people knew nothing about fighting. There wasn’t a trap or a sentry anywhere, not even atop their newly constructed bell tower. The thatch-roofed platform appeared unmanned. What good was a warning bell if no one was there to ring it?
What had he expected from primitives who lived in grass huts, hunted with spears, and prayed to the aurora tropicos? Those lights weren’t Protecting Spirits. They were electromagnetic fields. Forces of nature. Science. That’s what protected their island from Hyboreans.
His skin crawled and jaw clenched. If it weren’t for the Hyboreans, he wouldn’t have to capture these savages in the first place.
But he had a plan that would end human suffering.
A warbling birdcall signaled the first troop was in position. It wouldn’t be long before he heard the others’ signals.
Kedric almost felt sorry for his enemies.
They’d no idea war was imminent.
Myia couldn’t sleep. She should have been able to conquer her emotions by now, yet here she was on her eighteenth birthday—the most important day of her life—and she couldn’t calm her nerves enough to sleep through the night.
The rope frame creaked beneath her as she got out of bed. She padded barefoot across the dirt floor to the hut’s only window.
A crack of orange sunlight separated the forest from the still-starry heavens where the Spirits danced in a display of red-and-green lights. But today, they weren’t weaving and swaying with their usual harmonious grace. The lights clashed and crashed into each other as if doing battle.
They appeared as restless as she was. Surely they weren’t reflecting her anxiety over today’s vision quest.
What had upset the Protecting Spirits?
If she could relax, she could alter her state of consciousness and ask them. But that was her whole problem, wasn’t it?
A shaman must maintain inner serenity, her father had instructed time and time again.
She closed her eyes and inhaled sticky humidity and the sweet, dusty scent of dried herbs, thatch, and soil. She tried concentrating on her breathing like she’d done so many times in the past, but it was no use. Excitement and apprehension had hijacked her tranquillity.
How would she ever become a full-fledged shaman if she couldn’t quiet herself?
She was doomed to fail her vision quest.
And disappoint her father.
Her body grew heavy with the thought. Although she’d never be as wise and knowledgeable a healer as he, she wanted nothing more than to follow in his footsteps. She’d do her best to try.
As if summoned, her father rushed into her hut. Something was wrong. He never rushed. “Myia”—his voice remained calm—“sound the bell. The Highlanders are coming again.”
Not wasting the precious seconds it would take to slip on her moccasins, she raced out the door, weaved between huts, fire pits, and water barrels toward the village center. After the last attack, the remaining men began constructing the bell tower and only finished it yesterday. No one had been assigned to stand watch yet.
It was up to her alone to sound the alarm.
Heart pounding, she scrambled up the twenty rungs of the ladder, praying the structure wouldn’t collapse. The wooden platform seemed to sway, or perhaps the height made her dizzy. She gripped the half wall to steady herself, and her eye caught movement through the jungle below. The Highlanders had the village surrounded and were quickly advancing.
She gripped the mallet’s thick handle and swung hard, striking the bell with all her force. A deep metallic ring reverberated inside her body and ears, nearly deafening them from a warrior’s shriek below.
The vegetation emitted menacing screams that grew louder as more and more warriors joined in the war cry. Despite the summer heat, icy chills slid down her spine.
She repeatedly struck the bell as the village came alive. Men and women fled their homes with small children and babies in their arms. The older children ran close behind their mothers.
From her vantage point, she could see what they couldn’t: the surrounding invaders moving swiftly through the vegetation toward them.
Tears blurred her vision. If she hadn’t been so self-absorbed, so wrapped up in her own concerns, she could’ve received the Spirits’ warning before her father had. She could’ve sounded the alarm sooner. Her friends and neighbors might have been able to escape into the jungle.
Instead, they were ambushed.
The bell clanking and ringing in her ears couldn’t drown out their frightened screams as the Highlanders captured them. There wasn’t much of a fight. Hers were a peaceful people. They didn’t train for battle as the Highlanders did.
The warriors who didn’t lay in wait surged into the village and raced to specific huts as if they had been targeted before the attack. One raced for her tower.
Tamping down her fear, she took a deep, cleansing breath, preparing herself for the confrontation. Once the Highlander touched her, her spirit would enter his and she’d heal his angry heart.
Assuming she could remain calm and at peace with the world.
This would be so much easier if she weren’t whacking the heck out of an upside-down metal bowl and the tower wasn’t shaking from the warrior climbing the ladder.
“Spirits, fill my heart with peace and tranquillity to help my people.” She closed her eyes and struck the bell with an even tempo. The rhythm of it wasn’t relaxing her. No power surged through her body.
A fist encircled her biceps stopping her arm midswing. Her eyes opened to a familiar face she hadn’t seen since the first raid on their village. “Lem!”
“Myia.” He released her arm and embraced her. The gesture lowered his defenses, and his emotional brew of resentment and excitement flowed into her.
The last time their souls had intertwined she’d helped him grieve the loss of his mother. “I’m so relieved you’re alive. Everyone sent to negotiate our people’s return had been captured.”
“Not captured. Liberated.” He glanced over the half wall before pulling her to the floor as he crouched. “Stay down. It’s best if no one sees us talking.”
“But the warning bell.”
“It’s too late.”
He was right, of course. The Highlanders had already invaded, and by the sounds of the chaos below, the villagers were defending themselves as best as a peace-loving people could against warmonger aggression.
“Are the Highlanders forcing you to capture your own people?”
“They aren’t forcing me. I volunteered. I’ve come to save you.”
“Not you exactly, but the bell ringer.”
“Lem, take my hand. I can heal the hostility in your heart.”
“It’s not hostility. It’s determination. I want to bring our tribesmen to the Highlands.”
“Why? Why would you capture your own people?”
“Life is so much better there. The Highlanders are so advanced and smart. They have technology. And the food! Myia, there’s so much to eat all the time.” Lem certainly didn’t appear to be starving. In fact, in the few weeks he’d been gone, he looked to have been well nourished and filled out his nearly six-foot frame. “They have medicines, too. Powerful medicines that could have saved my mother. Our people fear the unknown. By bringing them to the Highlands, we help them see the light. After a few days, they don’t want to leave.”
Not want to leave? Not want to return to their homes and families? He was talking nonsense. “Take my hand and I’ll heal your heart.”
“I don’t need healing. I know the truth.”
“That the Hyboreans capture humans. They keep them caged as pets. They force men to kill each other for sport. Kedric, our leader, believes we can defeat them and free the human race.”
Poor Lem. Only two years younger than she, he’d been easily led astray. “Your so-called leader has captured you. He’s kept you caged behind stone walls. He’s seduced you with food and technology and brainwashed you to attack your own people. Look.” She pushed aside some thatch in the half wall, making a hole. “Your brethren run in fear for their lives and their families. How could you have become a part of this?”
“But they won’t be harmed. Kedric only needs more men for his army. We can’t fight the Hyboreans without them.”
“They won’t be harmed, yet they are made to join an army and forced to kill? Do you not hear the foolishness of your own words? Your leader is no better than a Hyborean.”
He had no counterargument. “I-I never thought of it like that.”
Myia’s fingers entwined with Lem’s. She breathed in deeply, silently calling upon the Spirits to give her strength to calm his heart and fill it with peace.
“Myia,” he whispered.
“Shh. Let the grace of the spirit world reveal what is truly in your heart. You aren’t a soldier. You don’t slay other creatures for war. You’re a spiritual being who lives in peace, harmony, and balance with all life. Let the Spirits breathe the love and goodness you knew back into your soul.”
Her spirit flowed into his body. “Thank you for your trust, Lem.”
It didn’t take long before his thoughts dissipated from Highland madness to the old, peaceful village life. His spirit had a strong and deep connection here. His subconscious knew what was right and what was wrong. Unfortunately, his conscious mind had been under the influence of the Highland lord the past few weeks. But now that she’d reminded him who he was, he was ready to return to his true essence.
This was what shamanism was all about. Healing a man’s soul. Restoring his balance and harmony and joy.
Reawakening his essence.
When she finally separated her spirit from his and rejoined the physical world, mournful sobs had taken the place of the screams and warriors’ shouts from earlier. How many villagers had been taken away this time?
“I’m sorry, Myia.” Lem wept.
It was a natural response to enlightenment. Tears were the body’s way of purging ego.
The planks beneath her vibrated as though someone was climbing the ladder. The tower couldn’t possibly hold any more weight.
“Myia!” The fear in her little sister’s voice sent shivers down her spine.
She crawled to the edge of the platform and peered over. “Don’t come up, Kimi. The tower can’t hold us all.”
“Come quickly. Father’s been injured.”
Myia turned back to Lem. She didn’t want to leave him while he was so vulnerable, but Father needed her.
“Go,” he said. “I’ll be all right.”
She touched his shoulder in thanks. Lem would be all right. He needed time to reflect on all he’d been through in the last month. She’d check on him later.
As soon as hard ground met the soles of her bare feet, Myia sprinted after her sister. When she saw two women carrying her father into his home, she paused. It wouldn’t do anyone good to see a shaman-aprendi in a state of panic. She wiped her eyes and then calmly walked to the door.
Once inside, she knelt at his bedside. “I’m here, Father.” Her voice was low, quiet, and far more at peace sounding than she felt. Outwardly masking her feelings was the easy part. She’d had eighteen years to perfect that skill. The trouble was quelling them on the inside.
How could she be a true shaman when she couldn’t control something as simple as her own emotions?
Father didn’t speak. Nor did he open his eyes, yet somehow his hand found her fingers and he squeezed them in reassurance. Their spirits didn’t connect. He would want to mediate first.
“His shinbone is broken,” Kimi said.
Myia forced her tears back and nodded. She had to be strong for the group. They would look to her for guidance and strength. It would help no one to blubber all over her stoic father.
With a fortifying breath, she let go of his hand and then took command of the room. In all the time it took to cleanse his wounds, set poultices, and dress his injuries, his breath remained steady and strong.
The fact that he hadn’t spoken in over an hour didn’t concern her. He would speak when he had something to say. And she knew he’d have nothing to say until he finished meditating on this morning’s invasion.
His tranquillity was admirable. Awe-inspiring. Even in the most trying and troubling times, he could be still, reflect and receive the Spirit’s wisdom. Would she ever be able to do the same?
When she finished administering to his injuries, he intertwined his fingers with hers. His despair gushed into her soul. His heavy heart was burdened not with his own ailments, but with the attack, and worse, the betrayal of his own people. They’d taken up arms and fought back when he’d instructed them to hide. Apparently the villagers had spent the last month secretly practicing hand-to-hand combat. But their skills had been no match for the Highlanders. Engaging in battle only caused them greater suffering.
She hated feeling her father’s anguish over the tribe’s path to becoming a fighting people. Once a nation became ruled with anger and hatred for another nation, there would be no bringing peace and spirituality back.
“I see your thoughts and fears, Father. You rest and leave the villagers to me. When you are well, you will see each and every heart in our nation healed.”
“No, my child.”
“Father?” She hadn’t expected him to voice an answer. He’d been too weak; his spirit too dim. Had her anger at the Highlanders clouded her ability to read him clearly?
She must get control of her feelings.
It took all his strength to speak. It would have been less taxing for his spirit to communicate directly with hers, but she sensed his desire for all in the room to hear his words.
“Heal the…Highlanders.” His breathing labored. “Only then…will we…have peace.”
In order to heal the Highlanders she’d have to leave the village. Leave Father. What if he got worse while she was away? He was getting up there in years, and his body didn’t recover like a younger man’s. He needed her here to care for his wounds, both the physical and spiritual. “I can’t go. The people here need me. You need me. If I step foot beyond the Highland walls, I’ll never be set free.”
“You will…once you heal…their people.”
How would she do that from a prison cell or a dungeon? Surely those barbarians would keep her locked away. Or maybe they would get rid of her body altogether. How much help could she be to anyone on this island if her soul joined the Protecting Spirits? Without her father or her to link the physical world with the spiritual, there would be no healing. No enlightenment.
What would happen to the people of Pele if left to rule by ego?
“Start with their leader.” Father spoke slowly, taking many breaths between his words. “His heart has a great wound. Mend his spirit, and he will stop the attacks.”
How could she possibly do that? She wasn’t a full shaman. She had to pass the initiation test, and she’d yet to begin her vision quest.
It would take the greatest strength coming from the greatest inner tranquillity in order to heal the warring heart of an alpha gladiator leader who was hell-bent on taking all their men for his army. The fool couldn’t win against the Hyboreans. They were an advanced race, indigenous to this planet. And the Peletians were either escaped refugees or descendants of escaped refugees. They were only a few hundred strong.
“I can’t leave you, Father. You need me to help heal you. You’re too weak to do so on your own.”
“You must…heal…the nations. That is…most important.”
“You will not fail.” Faith in her flooded his soul in a powerful surge. He believed in her abilities wholeheartedly. Whether that was due to prophecy or blind faith she couldn’t be sure. She only knew it was unwise to argue with the most astute elder shaman in Peletian history. Especially when he was her father and suffered from a broken leg and a broken heart.
“Yes, Father. I will heal the warriors’ hearts.” It wasn’t a lie. She would do everything in her power to uphold her vow. She just wasn’t as confident in her abilities as he was.
His lips pulled into a smile before he closed his eyes to sleep. As peace entered his soul, she withdrew her spirit from his.
“Kimi, I need you to take care of—”
“I will. I’ve been studying the herbals. I can nurse Father back to health.”
She cupped her little sister’s cheek. Though Kimi was only fourteen, she was smart and capable. “I know you can.”
By the bright morning sunshine filtering in through the window, Myia estimated about eighteen hours of daylight left. It should take about fifteen hours to hike the mountain to the Highland kingdom, assuming she didn’t run into any trouble.
If she were to arrive before dark, she best get started.
It didn’t take long to gather supplies, kiss her father and sister good-bye, and bid farewell to the few villagers who’d escaped the attack.
Funny, whenever she’d imagined today’s journey into the jungle, she had thought it would be for her vision quest. She’d no idea she would be on a journey to heal the Highland warlord’s heart.
Assuming he had a heart to heal.
© 2013 K.M. Fawcett