Between the time when the ancient world collapsed in war, and the rise of the Kingdom of Mabinogi, there was an age undreamed of; and unto this, a group of heroes, destined to bear the fate of the world upon their troubled shoulders. It is I, their chronicler, who alone can tell you of their saga. Now let me bring you to the days of high adventure!
THE SONG OF ITZAMNA
1: Strange Highways
Blow, wind! Blow, sand! Writhe around in your rage and enmity! It is not enough to upset her. Let a million shards of rock and grit billow and batter about! Let the storm howl! Let the sun beat down with its merciless heat! Let the everlasting dryness of Xibalba bake those who dwell upon her capricious breast! It is still not enough to upset her. She will lie there with more patience than the desert stones. She will burrow beneath the storm and the sand, becoming one with the hot earth, permeating symbiotic, until she is as much desert as the wind and the sand and the heat. This world has nothing to threaten her with. She is impervious to pain, and lies still with Time as her ally. So let the ferocity of the never-ending desert continue. Let it lash like a brutal taskmaster; let it drain the rivers and oceans dry; let fissures open up, chasms yawn, boils burst; let life be engulfed into the endless stretch of barren wasteland! Let all the world die: it is not enough. She will not move until she is ready.
A day passes, and cruel arctic night approaches. She has known since infancy how to obtain water in the desert: how to construct a trap to catch stingy moisture from the plants, how to never move, lest thirst overcome her. She knows to burden herself with flasks, to only drink when she is staring at the threshold of madness, when parched and flaky lips gasp for water, when her tongue is bloated, when every drop is more precious than blood. The sand's heat sinks as a quiet desert moon swirls overhead, and the garb of the Hunapu brings sudden relief from the bitter chill. No—even this will not stir her. Her prey only emerges at dawn; she must wait until then. And if she is very, very lucky, the prey will come within her area, and not veer away, towards safer grounds. But she can wait—for days, for weeks, if necessary. The prey will come, it must. She knows this because the Hunapu have taught her such.
Morning. Warmth as a reward for hours spent frozen in a hollow pit. She stirs her muscles, fighting atrophy. It comes; she can feel it. Granules are disturbed, tumbling in microscopic clumps, then rivulets, then waves, as the world shakes under its footfalls. It's gaining speed. She waits and watches from her position. Now she can feel the vibrations through her fingers. Closer. The wind blows in the opposite direction, hiding its scent. Closer. The storm calms briefly, and she can make out its faint silhouette on the horizon. Closer. It's very fast. It will kill her if she moves too late. Too soon, and it will run, and hours of persistence will be wasted. Closer. Closer. Closer.
She bursts free. At first, the creature might think it's another sand boil, and recoil instinctively. She predicts this, and throws her spear at its legs. The tip is coated with toxins that will stiffen muscles and silence the nerves. It strikes—she throws another. A miss. She runs directly underneath the creature as it hovers, briefly, confused at first—then alarmed. It realized the danger of the situation. Good. The blood will flow faster, pumping the toxins throughout its body. She retrieves her fallen spear, ties a rope to the end, and flings it at the beast's scaly hide. It runs, panicking: she hangs on and is soon a passenger. Climb!
She straddles the beast, wrapping a strong hand around its long neck. It screams, wheels its head around, tries to bite. She's ready. A blow-dart goes into the mouth as it snarls, and the beast chokes, coughing. She brings her cudgel down on its neck as it writhes, then its skull—twice. It falls; she jumps off. She breaks the kneecaps so it cannot escape, then its spine. For a moment, their eyes meet. The saurian has large, yellowy orbs glinting with danger and beauty; she's enthralled by them. But there is no pity in her heart, only the capacity to appreciate a beautiful death and a hunt performed well. Soon it's gone and she harvests its bounty.
"Shai is like a blade that is kept out of its sheath too long. Shai's position as a hunter for the Hunapu must end. The Hunapu have decided that Shai will perform better services if Shai represents the Hunapu in the tournament. There is great honor to be had in Dorian, and Shai's skills are wasted on the hunt. Go there, and see that Shai does not shame the Hunapu."
"Whether Shai wins or loses, what must Shai do next to please the Hunapu?"
"That is something only Shai can answer. Go. Bring the Hunapu honor."
As she reckoned it, the border between Xibalba and the nearest city was still a few days' journey away. Without the Ixbalanque, Shai would have to fend for herself the whole time. No matter; she had lived her entire life in the wasteland. What was a few more miles to her? Still, she kept a sharp lookout. The Hunapu only used the Ixbalanque when they had need for them; otherwise, they were left to roam free. She might just find one before leaving the badlands.
It would have been impossible for her to cross the entire desert with what she had harvested from the saurian, so Shai only carried what she believed she'd need, and left the rest as an ironic offering to the gods. She couldn't help but laugh bitterly at the thought of sacrificing anything: it was not so long ago that she and the giant lizard shared very similar fates. The Hunapu tribe she belonged to now had saved her, but there would be no savior for her desiccated bounty: only vultures, jackals, flies, scavengers. The Hunapu never touched a corpse; they had scolded her for wasting such prime game before. The Ixbalanque wouldn't eat it; they only consumed sand. For once she felt bad about it; she'd need those remains before long, but what could she do? Without anything to shoulder the load, she had no choice but to leave it behind. No matter; the desert was nearly infested with saurians. One death wouldn't make a difference.
Day passed into night. Xibalba's bounties proved invaluable as she gathered tinder for a fire. There was brush to spare, and an endless supply of flint, if you knew how to work it properly. Shai built a good fire and roasted all her meat—eating some, saving the rest for later. She also drank the saurian's blood—it sufficed for water and had some nutrients to it—and used the scaly skin as a cloak. Shai watched the moon hover in the sky until sleep overwhelmed her: day brought more of the same wandering. There was not a single Ixbalanque in sight. Normally she'd be able to discern their presence. They were huge, they were enormous: they left clear tracks and clear signs of their passing. Not even a fool could miss spotting the large chunks of unrefined glass they left as refuse—and once you've seen an Ixbalanque, you never mistake it for anything else. But there weren't any now, and she doubted she'd find one in time to make the search worthwhile. Ixbalanque never went anywhere near the cities, anyway.
Night passed into day which passed into night and day again, and Shai found her way to the outpost. In her time with the Hunapu, she had only seen three cities, and none of them had made much of an impression on her. Shai felt out of place in crowds, and normally avoided them. The one time she was forced to enter a city—forced, because one of the merchants commanded her to go, so that she would understand how they bartered—she kept close to her guide and never interacted with anyone. Shai despised or distrusted all living creatures to a certain extent: she even kept her guard up around her benefactors. And now they had asked her to visit a city, by herself, and fight on their behalf.
Shai realized that she was quickly gathering the attention of the townsfolk. Hunapu visited the towns outside the desert often enough, but seldom were they alone. She partly had her outfit to blame for all the stares. Outsiders were used to seeing Hunapu in their traditional desert gear, but not when they were smattered with lizard-blood, as hers was. She hadn't had the opportunity to wash, so she cursed and headed for the closest bathhouse. The proprietor was fat, bald, and had an ugly mustache, but he treated Shai warmly.
"Oh, hello there! Are you with a party?"
"No, Shai is alone. Shai needs a wash, please."
"Just by yourself, huh? Don't see too many Sand-Wanderers going solo." Only the Hunapu called themselves the Hunapu; the other species had different names for them. Shai could tell he was human because of the unimaginative vernacular he used. "Welp, all the same," he resumed, "a customer's a customer. We take five coppers for laundry and two for a bath."
"Shai has no coins. Will this one trade?" she spoke. The merchant she had followed assured her that his teachings would be important one day, and what do you know, he was right. The caretaker leaned forward eagerly, wondering what Shai had to offer. Hunapu traders were loaded with strange and mysterious artifacts, things you could never find in the cities. To barter with one meant good fortune.
"Sure, sure! What do you have?"
"Bones, meat, some humours, scales…" He looked over the meat carefully, and tasted a portion.
"Saurian, huh? Excellent quality! But it's worth a lot more than seven coppers."
"Shai is in a hurry. Please exchange," she announced. He shrugged and gave her two lacquer tokens.
"It's your call. Tell you what: I'll store some of this for ya, and you can get it back once you're finished. I don't feel right stealing from a Sand-Wanderer."
"Shai thanks this one," she replied flatly. That was certainly unexpected. Shai had grown up on stories of how many other races flaunted their greed shamelessly, and connived innocent merchants of their wares. This seemed to be one of the honest few, but all the same, she kept her eye on him—and she kept her weapons close.
The token Shai was given led to a bathhouse designed specifically for Hunapu. Few of the other species of Itzamna treasured their privacy to this degree (Humans were a possible exception); she was glad of it as she entered. She was also the only one, which made the situation even easier to bear. Her laundry went into a little slot, and came out once she was finished bathing. The blood was gone, but it had a strange smell to it—not unpleasant, certainly, but foreign all the same. She dried off, dressed, retrieved her prize, and went out to exchange the rest of it. Hopefully, she'd find some way of reaching the tournament in Dorian.
And if not…?
Orgies were not uncommon in the matriarchal society of Espa; in fact, they were encouraged. Since time immemorial, these sexual rituals were regarded as acts of the highest intimacy, where one could forge and strengthen the bonds of Sisterhood—where one could learn from and understand her neighbors better, even if they were enemies, even if they were strangers. But they were not the wild, senseless, bacchanal festivals of lust the legends would have you believe: they were controlled and organized with gravity, consideration, and much forethought, and they only happened once a year—fittingly, on the eve of springtide, when copulation and growth was at the forefront of every woman's mind. Before each ritual, the sibyl would say a prayer, and the Sisters would join as chorus. Each would come before the council and the sibyl, disrobe, kneel, and receive a holy kiss, believed to bestow prosperity and goodwill for another year. Those who held grudges with one another were especially blessed and encouraged to join together—better to wash away the bad tidings and form unexpected friendships. At the very least, the bitterness between the two parties would fade on this one day.
The sibyl did not join; she stood over the writhing, moaning, exalting congregation and recited poems and stories of glory days gone by. She would beseech Mother Goddess and Daughter Itzamna to shield her flock, to give them good hunt, to bring prosperity, to stave off evil. She would also command every woman there to do the same: to love one another, if only for a day, and to honor their Sisters; to be fruitful, to obey the Mother and Daughter and Holy Spirits. The sexual Mass would begin once the full moon was at its peak, and would end as it cast long shadows across the weary bodies below. The following day, new relations might spring from this single moment of ecstatic unity: perhaps lifelong, perhaps for a fleeting instance.
One in particular, Chinwe Huntmaster-Guardian Sister of Naja, felt heretical emptiness after such an exhausting affair. The springtide orgies were a sacred part of life for the Amazons of Espa, and she respected their traditions with utmost love and sincerity, but constantly changing from one lover to the next, as one moves from tree to tree during a hunt, disagreed with her tastes. She wanted something firmer, something more constant, something that could be relied upon to be there for her, whether in success or failure, whether in springtide or solstice, whether in darkest nights or brightest mornings. A holy prayer for good harvest could not fulfill this role, and none of her previous engagements did much to satisfy her, either. She was not alone in this thought, of course, but she could still feel alone, even as two leftovers from the ritual paid her a visit, and made love to her until all three were spent.
As always, Naja Warbringer Daughter of Shritala would know what to do.
And as always, when Chinwe asked her, Naja gave her the same reply:
"You are a Huntmaster—so hunt!"
Useless. People did not behave like beasts. Besides, the last time she tried to trap a prospective love interest, she was whipped and banned from festivities for a week.
"That is not what I meant, Sister," Naja had told her harshly. "I know you are wiser than that. You cannot hunt a lover like you would hunt a beast. It is barbaric and shameful, and you shall never do it again."
"But that's all I know!" she had argued. "If I'm doing it wrong, teach me how to hunt lovers properly!"
"I can see that I have been lax in your instructions," Naja had said, calming her voice. "You are one of our mightiest hunters, Sister, and you have proven to excel as a Guardian. Few have mastered these skills as you have, and we are proud of you for it. But in matters of relations, I am afraid you have only our springtide rituals for guidance. Have none of your previous lovers ever been faithful?"
"You know what our life is like here," Chinwe had said, gesturing sadly. "Basically, whomever agrees to be together is together, until someone else strikes their fancy. I could never hold any of my previous lovers to blame for their wanderlust. I'm afflicted as well. It's how we live. But as the trees share the earth all their lives, I wish to share one for all of mine."
"Yes, if only you had better precedents," her sister had smiled sadly. If circumstances had been different, Naja would have gladly offered herself for Chinwe to love. They were so close and trusted each other so implicitly that it almost seemed like the natural thing to do. But Naja had raised Chinwe; she was more like a Daughter than a Sister to her, and as deep as her love went, there were some boundaries it could never cross. No, not even for a single night—not even for springtide. "I am ashamed to offer you no better wisdom, beloved Chinwe. Have patience, and tenacity! That, at least, is a lesson shared in the hunt."
"You are wiser than me, Sister." They embraced and shared a chaste kiss, and Chinwe returned to her job as Huntmaster and Guardian, choosing duties over desires, as she always had. She ventured far and away from the encampment, vaulting up the watchtower and swinging out towards familiar branches. Chinwe had spent decades soaring through the jungle, more like a bat or a squirrel than a woman: she could leap and bound and hardly make the branches quiver with her weight. Tall, but lean and sinewy, Chinwe was quick and agile, usually little more than a sliver of darkness underneath the thick canopy. She had sprinkled gold dust on her skin for the orgy, but now it was bared and brown, like the stripped bark of a beech.
Spotting a stream, Chinwe hopped down from the protruding branches, landing on all fours, quickly scouting for predators. The water in Espa was pure, but taking a drink meant risking your life every time. Large cats often roamed rivers and pools, sometimes just thirsty, sometimes in search of a meal. Chinwe had defended herself on many occasions from these beasts—not out of hatred, for she loved them like family—but merely for survival. Some backed away without a fight, and some demanded a more exacting toll. Thankfully, the pool only had a few deer at it, and a bear wading around, searching for fish. Chinwe watched the grizzly old bruin splash for a moment and smiled, delighting in how childish he seemed. She knelt as if offering thanks and slurped great draughts, then filled a skin. Back to business.
There were many Amazon tribes living in Espa, and for the most part, they kept to themselves, only occasionally venturing out—usually to kidnap males for breeding, or to hunt, or to act as ambassadors. A general armistice was understood between them all, but sometimes, one tribe would break the truce and push beyond their boundaries. Chinwe once asked Naja why the Sisters fought each other like that, and got a different answer each time.
"Because sometimes food is scarce, and they're desperate to feed themselves. Because somebody else stole something from them. Because a river diverted and they need fresh water. Jealousy. Spite. Revenge. Greed. Love. Oh yes, Sister, wars have been fought because of Love. Our own sibyl was once tied to the sibyl of another tribe, long ago and far away. And our sibyl felt lust for a woman from our tribe, and followed her here, and lived with her. That caused a great war."
"Did many of the Sisters die?" Naja had thought about it for a moment. All this had taken place decades before her time.
"I've heard something to that effect. But they usually just taunted each other and exchanged insults. The war lasted until springtide, when the two sides joined briefly for the ritual."
"So we're not the only ones who do this?"
"No, little one," she smiled, kissing her head. "All Sisters celebrate the planting season with love. But to continue with my story, an exchange was made. Ten of our Sisters volunteered to go over to the other tribe in order to stop the fighting." Chinwe had been wide-eyed.
"Ten of ours for the sibyl?" And Naja had laughed.
"The other tribe wouldn't take anything less. We also had to offer some of our males, and a few cattle and sheep. But that was a good bargain. It helped stop the fighting."
"So whenever there's another fight, we just trade with the other tribe?"
"Sometimes," she had answered vaguely. Now that Chinwe had grown into a woman—just passed her eight-and-twentieth twelvemonth—she knew that wars were not nearly so black and white, and victory not so easily obtained. Sisters were killed on both sides, and no amount of trading (or springtide orgies) could stem them. This was the reason why she chose to become a hunter, because infighting and warmongering disgusted her. Of course, sometimes all it took was a vigilant Guardian, and Chinwe had performed her duties well.
Still. She couldn't quell her curiosity. She had never been away from Espa before, and she wondered if there was anything else out there, past the barrier of wood and water. Naja Warbringer Daughter of Shritala might know.
It was evening by the time Chinwe returned from her patrol, and rain had begun to fall. Apparently the orgy had done its job: the tribe would have fine weather for sowing. Chinwe plucked a broad leaf from a tree and hoisted it over her head, like a primitive parasol, as she sought out Naja's hut. More than likely, she'd be entertaining a "guest" and wouldn't want to be disturbed, but Chinwe could at least check. She approached the ladder and climbed up—most huts were on elevated platforms, to guard against wild animals and floods—then poised at the entrance, straining to hear. Gently, she flapped her hand on the leopardskin tarp and whispered for her Sister.
"Who's there?" she heard a voice call back. Chinwe answered. "Forgive me, Sister, but I'm engaged for the night. Meet with me tomorrow at dawn and we'll speak."
"Sure." That settled that, then. Restless, and still curious, Chinwe decided to visit the sibyl. If anybody knew what the outside world was like, it would be her. The sibyl lived in the highest hut, so climbing up there was no easy task for an ordinary Sister. Even Chinwe was challenged: she had to jump from tree to tree, and climb several rope ladders to get there. How the sibyl ever managed to scale this obstacle every day, with all her years weighing her down, was a mysterious feat. She was obviously stronger than her age implied.
The tarp-skin was open; the sibyl had her back to Chinwe , and was concentrating on a fire. Since her duties consisted of divination, shamanistic teachings, some medicine, and communication with Goddess, it made sense that she would be meditating so. Although she was no longer the ravishing, woman-stealing prophetess she had been in years past, her skills and senses had not left her, and she gestured for Naja before the younger woman could take another step.
"Come in, come in. Itzamna bless thee, Chinwe Huntmaster-Guardian Sister of Naja. The Holy Spirits spoke to me today. They told me you'd be here."
"Did they say why I would come?" she wondered. The old woman smiled slowly.
"No, but it doesn't take an expert to know that. You're wondering about that which has been on your mind since we first recognized you as our Sister."
"Yes—the world outside Espa." The old woman squeezed her eyes shut, a pained expression on her face.
"I have reason to think you're old enough, and mature enough, to know the truth. I was half your age the last time I saw the outside world. There was an expedition, led by my grandmother, to answer that very same question. Up until then, our tribes have always lived in isolation. I think they sensed that it was time they got to know their neighbors, so to speak."
"Mother," Chinwe politely interrupted, "can you tell me why our tribes were always isolated?"
"Oh, I think that old war had a lot to do with it." She didn't need to say any more; Chinwe immediately knew what she meant. "Fear, mostly, and caution. But back to the expedition. I met so many strange people and peculiar races out there! You wouldn't believe half the stories I'd tell you, unless you saw them yourself."
"And since then, what has happened?" The sibyl gave a little grunt, and sagged.
"My grandmother wanted to continue relations with some of the other peoples of the world. But there were some who opposed her, said it'd be too unhealthy for us if we broke our traditions. In the end, their voices won her over, and we've shrank back. Perhaps it's time to challenge their decision, though. More of our Sisters have been as curious as you are, and they've been setting out on their own. Many of them leave for good, which has naturally upset a lot of the other leaders. I've even heard of an entire tribe leaving the jungle, and never coming back."
Chinwe was brimming, almost overflowing, with excitement. Ever since she was a child, she had always believed that the entire world consisted of the same jungle, for ever and ever in every direction. When she was indoctrinated as a Sister into the tribe, ten years earlier, she had begun to question this belief, and her desire to know the limits of her world quickly became insatiable—just as insatiable as her desire for a steadfast lover. Both seemed possible, but only just out of her reach. And now she knew the truth. She was so overjoyed that she nearly fell out of the hut. The older woman saw her shaking, and smiled shrewdly.
"Perhaps I should not have filled your head with stories of the outside! But what's done is done, I suppose."
"Mother, you know I'd never go outside the jungle without your blessing," she answered, perhaps too quickly. It was this love and respect for the sibyl and her Sisters that kept her from bolting.
"I'm not so sure about that. You've always been the kind of person who accomplishes what she sets out to do, no matter what anyone else wants. But I see no particular reason to keep you here. We have hunters and guardians to spare, and you've certainly reached the age where you can do as you please." Chinwe beamed with joy and nearly threw her arms around the older woman in thanks, but was stopped.
"Heed my words, though, before you do anything rash, young Chinwe! First—my stories came from a time many years ago. The outer world has certainly changed since then. It may not be the halcyon place you imagine it to be. Second—if Naja objects, then you must remain here until she gives you her blessing. She has more say over your life than I do. Third—if you do not return within three twelvemonths' time, you are dead to us. Fourth—in no way must your actions cause your Sisters harm. Finally, remember who you are, where you came from, and what you are doing, at all times. Do you understand, young Chinwe?"
"I do, great sibyl. By your leave." She placed her forehead against the floor submissively, and left the sibyl's hut. A woman from the orgy was waiting for Chinwe in her bed; after making love, she spoke of what she had heard, but it fell to disinterested ears.
That settles it, then, she resolved. I'm going to leave the jungle and see what the outside world has to offer. Perhaps if I am fortunate, I will find my heart's desire.