"There's going to be trouble if the heads of two major houses are in my home."
"There's enough space. You could comfortably fit them."
"Exactly. I should just tell them no."
"Well, what should be happening is that you should be there…. I know! I know, don't look at me like that. I too wouldn't leave my girl for any reason."
Aphiwe's eyes battled their way open only to find her face covered, not with goggles but leather, thicker than any she'd ever felt. Her face was covered too, clean air forced itself against her nostrils.
She reached for her face and immediately regretted it, like a strong wind on fading embers, pain burst up, dotting her every muscle, making her grimace. It created a domino effect. She shuddered but fought through.
"Aphiwe? You waking up? Mom!"
"Chuma?" She slurred out.
Rocking back and forth she flung her hands onto her face, pulling, mixed with the sway, producing strength enough to get the mask off.
Her muscles burned, pulling, recoiling against her.
They locked into place when the giant Jokai appeared. Scowling, it talked using Chuma's voice.
Aphiwe screamed her lungs out, everything thrown into her howl. The Jokai stared, terrified, before weeping. The sunflower of bone shattered leaving fur. The melded form hugged itself. The image broke, turning to Chuma. Orange fur, tall for her age, thin from picky eating, large eyes, wet with fright and sorrow. The door burst, literally as Thato ran through, door handle in hand. She jumped, sliding on pure momentum across the sheets into her, clinging until Aphiwe's screams faded.
"Sindiswa, Roli, one of you get a doctor. Whoever else, get Chuma!"
Sindiswa, also orange furred slapped her husband on the head and he took off. She scooped Chuma up.
"Are you okay?" Thato asked.
"Do you want to go home?"
Chuma didn't move for what must have been a lifetime before shaking her head.
"Okay. She's fine, just a little rattled, how's Api?"
"I don't know. She's still breathing and is calming, but her heart's beating its way out her chest. You still think a noble house should come?"
"It's because of your care that they want to come."
"I already risked her life on it. She just got over excited just by having a friend over."
"Don't blame my child!" Chuma's mother yelled.
"I'm not blaming your child! I'm blaming myself… It was my name she called out. I wasn't even the first person she saw when she woke up."
"You have one of the most vital roles in the entire God Tree, having made one of the biggest changes in your race's history. You were going to be busy. If it'd happened any other day, you might've not seen her at all."
"I know you're trying-"
Chuma jumped out of her mother's hands and stepped in front of Thato, who without trying towered over her. Still Chuma reached out, her long tail, trying to stop her from reaching out, swatting at her wrists. Chuma withstood, determined to be held. Thato pulled her in, holding both, with room to spare. Chuma's tail hid, not touching Aphiwe who'd stopped shivering.
Aphiwe woke finding her mother next to her.
She shuddered, slicked in a cool sweat.
Her eyes darted, but there was only her mother. What was left of the door, shifted and her breath held. A tail, unknotted, was moving, picking up splinters, feeling its way forward. It held onto the most solid object it could and pulled, the object held and Chuma appeared butt first a trail of drool dragging across the floor until she stopped. Aphiwe tried to lift her head but barely anything moved.
"Chuma!" she whispered, her eyes widening when it dawned on her what the girl's tail was trying to do.
It reached the bed, tapping its way forwards.
It was why everyone slept on the ground. The girl's tail roamed the sheets until it caught her ankle.
"Chuma! Chuma!" she tried a little louder.
All she had to do was squeeze her tail, it'd back off.
That was all she had to do, but the embers of aching had already started a fiery rebellion. She was stuck. Chuma's tail pulled, dragging her off the bed by her ankle. She flopped on top of Chuma, waking her. They were nose to nose, wet black to dry silver, sharing breath.
"Can you move?" Chuma asked.
Aphiwe shook her head.
"The doctor was here. They say it's an after effect of the Jokai venom. But they don't know what'll happen. No one's even taken as much as you and not died."
Aphiwe had to catch her breath.
"She's okay, she's actually here. She found your bow."
"Oh… she's next door, do you want me to call her?"
For reasons unknown her heart began to flutter, not racing but tiptoeing at speed. She shook her head. Chuma's blurry face formed a weak smile and her tail locked them together.
"I was really scared." Chuma breathed. "All we saw was Lesanda on Bae Bae who was howling the whole time. They took Lesanda. Your mom was so quick, she called up as many people as she could to look for you. It was more than I'd ever seen. When Lesanda woke. She didn't know what happened. You had Bae Bae jumping up and down and before anyone could get ready. Your mom and Bae Bae took off. I stayed with Lesanda but Langa took off with her whole family."
"No, she wasn't allowed."
"…B… …ut?" Aphiwe asked, catching a 'look'.
"I dunno, think Langa and Sihle are scared of coming."
"…What… does… your… tail… thin…k?"
Chuma pulled a face but sighed.
"They don't want to see you weaker than them."
"I know." Chuma said rubbing foreheads, fur prickling her skin.
"You're gonna get better you know."
"…Not… sick… just… …ssss… ore."
"You should tell your mom."
There was barking outside and Chuma sat up, taking Aphiwe with, no easy task, but there was no hope of being let go.
It made them jump, her mom was up wide eyed in terror, immediately scooping both girls in burly arms.
"You're awake. Oh my God, can you talk?"
"A few words at a time." Chuma said before her tail covered her mouth.
"Does it hurt to talk?"
Both girls nodded, Chuma's tail took the hint and covered Aphiwe's mouth.
"Does it hurt to move?"
"Baby, it's okay. That's actually a good thing. They're sore, not dead. That's so good. I love you so much."
The barking grew intense and there was a knock, heavy, arrogant, frightening and angering. Affirmed by the look on her mother's face.
Thato marched, to the door.
Chuma's tail opened.
There were over a dozen faces, forming two lines. At the end was a woman, midnight black and silver skin reflecting against the torchlight, making her sparkle. She wore a fur coat, the tails held by burly men. Upon the door opening her walk began. The pure appeal, confidence and air of control was so deep Aphiwe was sure she'd be the size of their home by the time she reached the stairway.
The line formed behind her when she reached the bottom step.
Chuma was pushed up and, on her own accord, climbed onto Thato's head. Aphiwe couldn't help but notice all the light around them. It was absorbing, it should have been on the doors, but windows were open, shining light on the powerful woman in front of her. Aphiwe knew the custom. A newcomer at the door. It meant her mom, more specifically the home matriarch was supposed to pull her up the stairway for 'safety'. Thato hesitated, taking two steps down before stopping.
"Good evening, my matriarch."
"I came to see if the rumours were true. That someone poisoned by, not one but three different Jokai, survived. As I'm sure you know, a cure is beyond our wildest dreams and yet a child, from a lesser branch of the Ndlovu house had done it. I couldn't leave such a thing to messengers. Is she the one? I heard you only had one daughter, well, of blood any way."
The matriarch reached out.
It was her mother who recoiled, but only for a moment. It was enough to make the strange woman's eyes flash, but her mother had already flung herself forward, taking the woman's hand.
"Madam matriarch. It is such an honour. To think, word of my little girl would reach you, words cannot express."
Aphiwe had never seen her mother acting so 'jovial', she didn't let go, the grip so tight it caught the matriarch by surprise.
"Yes, well I'm glad-"
"Can I help you in? It would be such an honour."
"Well if you insist-"
Aphiwe's eyes widened.
Up the woman went, nearly dropping the two men still holding the coat. In one hand, Thato lifted and carried her in, patting her shoulder as though she'd just been dragged across a hall.
"Um, thank you."
"Tis a pleasure. May I get you tea?" Jovial Thato asked.
"Yes, that would be best."
Chuma jumped, backflipping off her shoulders. At that moment, three armoured women entered, making even Aphiwe gape, especially at the centre one in chain mail. She was a full head taller than Thato, javelin in hand, there was also a bow.
Chuma retreated, disappearing into the kitchen.
"Remember to use the good stuff." Thato yelled before looking back to the Matriarch Prime. "My best is not that amazing." She whispered almost bowing.
"I'm positive you'll surpass my standards. You're okay with a Lehare child making the tea?"
"But of course, she's one of the most helpful and talented girls on the God Tree."
The Prime smiled.
"That's one of the reasons I love children. I'm already on my fifth. I try to aim for a boy, they're rarer stock. And our family needs to collect the best, just as we do for the trees."
They rested inside the smoker's lounge, it had thick cushioned chairs, all well sat on.
She picked a spot and sat carefully.
"I'm sorry. I never got the name of your angel."
"Her name's Aphiwe."
"Nice to meet you, Aphiwe."
She moved to shake her hand but Aphiwe shut her eyes, burying her face into Thato's neck.
"I'm so sorry. Even though she survived, the effects were deep. For two weeks she's been deep sleep, struggling to win back her own body. It's why I carry her."
Aphiwe's face pressed against her mother's large bosom, eyebrows high.
"I see. And are you nursing her alone?"
"Her father died in the Nongoma war."
This made the Prime sigh.
"It's a shame what that territory tried to do to us. Stealing what we made fairly, when they could've joined. But that's a conflict for my children to win, not us."
She stopped, looking away, savouring some… unknown. Aphiwe looked. Locking eyes with the Prime who probed her, heart raced. Finally, her gaze ended and shifted to Aphiwe's mother.
"I must ask... If that's okay… about your work."
The Prime snapped her fingers and the smallest guard and the only of their species stepped ahead passing her a book tied with metal bars. It was unlocked and opened. There was no key, only the shifting of metal parts.
"There's a great deal of information on you as a Grounds Keeper. You're one of the two youngest to ever be considered for a promotion to Master. And judging by the overview we're given. It's the reason you weren't."
The Prime thought a moment.
"Which is, of course, a shame. But…" she sat up, looking around, "Judging from your home, most of it is… if I'm correct… missing."
Aphiwe cringed, suddenly siting up, her every muscle pulled. The Prime hadn't moved but behind her the larger one seemed to loom, javelin in hand. Aphiwe's gaze bounced to glare to glare, the muscles in her neck aching but wouldn't to ignore the tension.
"Not that it matters, it's just an observation. I'm good at that kind of thing, I must be if I'm to make quality selections. And…"
She got up, pulling out a random scroll from a stand, and sitting back down.
"You… are quality."
She opened it to a show a detailed sketch of a Jokai skeleton. The detail was immense, there were names and symbols for every bone. Aphiwe pressed into her mother, the warmth wasn't there. She was being held up by steel beams.
"You've been thinking of fighting nature. Our culture doesn't exactly approve." The Prime said.
"Our way of life speaks of being partners with Nature. That means resilient, not just defensive." Thato said.
"There's always a trade-off."
"True and death hanging over my daughter's head is no trade at all."
"And how, may I ask, did you manage?"
"Jokai venom. I've fed it to my child since birth. The smallest amounts within bounds of reason, of course. I'd read of journals where a disease could be fought by the young. But I also believed poisons could propagate constantly as with some rare diseases, where only a fraction of a fraction is needed to enter one's blood to kill. A poison isn't like a plant. It will contaminate but won't grow or change. Only the maker can change. Knowing this I took a risk, no. I decided to have faith and succeeded. Though,"
Aphiwe's mother softened to the point of being feathery and kissed her temple.
"It likely wasn't a strong enough dose or wasn't frequent enough. Either way I wasn't going to take anymore chances with my only daughter."
"Is it safe to assume you have, records?" Asked the Prime.
Her mother remained silent, simply looking at the Prime to whom they were insignificant. A spec of dust. Her mother stood out, bright enough to blind a queen.
The Prime continued. "I heard something interesting about a cave inside a tree. Apparently there were piles of silver and gold but many scrolls. Now the silver and gold were received, the appropriate reward given to the Grounds Keepers and the Ndlovu Sana House as compensation but no mention of a single note, no king's message that might have been lost... but…" She trailed, just… reading. One would have thought she were staring at the sky for the first time. "Yes, these are some of the most meticulous notes that I've ever seen …."
"And once I retire, my child's will be more so." Thato said.
"Well, I can't help but feel that what I'm going to ask next is clear."
"Whether you can have them? For the sake of the God Tree?"
The Prime tilted her head to the side, smirking.
"That needed to be asked?"
Aphiwe could physically feel her mother retreating. Thato took a breath, her muscles softening.
"True. I apologise for being presumptuous."
"It's perfectly fine. My question is this. Are you trying to build your own house?"
Aphiwe found herself terrified. At that moment, half a dozen cups on a tray held by Chuma appeared, a large pot floating by her tail. Chuma was good at food, preparing with the best etiquette… but… the scones, jam, bamboo butter and thin cuts of meat. Mother's chicken? And the freshly smoked cuts? The scones looked like they're made from wheat and not amaranth. There was even milk! She poured and retreated when Thato clapped softly enough that it barely qualified, merely fingers verifying that the others were still there. Chuma lay next to them. Both girls stared at each other, Aphiwe never so grateful. There was a hybrid of toughening muscle and a rise in height as she took a sip.
"No. I have a house. The Ndlovu-sana house. And beyond that there's only this home and my daughter, her future."
"Isn't that hers to decide?" The Prime asked.
"A tree's life is its own, but it thrives by growing towards the sun that birthed it."
That made the Prime smile from a deep place. There was nothing 'jovial' about it. The Prime stood, shooing Thato and the guards when they stood. She took the cups, starting with each guard and pointing to a seat. They sat around her, backs straight, tight lipped.
"And that's all?" The Prime asked.
"I'm disappointing you." Thato said, lowering her head.
The Prime didn't speak, her mother's eyebrow raised.
"I don't know you, so I don't know if I should be disappointed. The more important question is, 'can I be disappointed'? You've meticulously put years of thought into a theory. That idea is something you've put so much faith into, you leveraged your only child. You deserve to and will be rewarded under the banner of the Ndlovu and Ndlovu-sana. Fine, but watching your child…one child should not a cure make, and yet… but even then…"
Aphiwe's mind eased, unsure of what was happening until the Matriarch suddenly brought her gaze up. Glaring with the deadest eyes Aphiwe had ever seen, she didn't so much as breathe. She looked up to see Thato's eyes. They were exactly the same. Sparks should have burst from the pair.
"Even then, there should have been more time, more effort. More space to consider other means." The Prime said.
"I'll, happily send my notes and journals." Thato replied, bowing her head.
"And I'm sure they'll be as well written as these. So well that… if it was me, it'd be a copy the original notes. Notes, which would be so comprehensive there'd be notions no one would see in the copies. Maybe… maybe I'm just a more questionable person... Maybe." The Prime said with a shrug. "Perhaps it'd be best if we call it a night. You mentioned your daughter being too tired to speak?"
"Well," She turned to Aphiwe who's eyes widened.
"I don't know." Her mother said.
"She says she isn't tired." Said a voice inside her head.
Aphiwe's eyes widened. The giant woman in the helmet sat up, pulling the helmet off to reveal a heavily scarred face, the palest skin, white hair and irises. She was, unbelieve… more built than even Thato and aunty Babalwa. She was stunning, a marble sculpture of an imperfect perfection, only there were parts missing. Namely a jaw, nose, and mouth.
There was just skin. It was rare to see an Abesante Cold Stepper face fully. Almost all were covered below the eyes.
"You're a reader?" Thato asked.
The woman nodded.
"My name is Liyema. The Prime's head of security."
"And confidential informant." Thato said.
"You know you said that out loud, right?" Liyema said.
Thato grinned, "Did I?"
The Prime burst out laughing.
"I brought her, for fear of your daughter being unable to speak." The Prime said.
"Is there a means for Liyema to speak to my child alone?" Thato asked.
The Matriarch turned to Liyema, who sunk a bare finger into her tea, stirring. Aphiwe grimaced.
"Very good. In my Abesante biology. There are an incredible few who can isolate their voices in a crowd, none my age. Also, what could I say to Aphiwe that she wouldn't say to you? Is there any threat that could be made that would be believed? You should be proud."
Her mother sighed, stroking Aphiwe's hair.
"You have me there…"
Before Aphiwe knew it she was surrounded, her on her mother's lap, Chuma on her shoulders.
"I'm scared," Liyema said, blasting out words yet to solidify in Aphiwe's mind. "I wish, Lesanda was here, she needs to see this."
The Prime coughed awkwardly.
"Yema. Maybe, be a little discerning."
"It's fine, shall we begin?" The Prime asked.
And so, it began, Liyema recited the day.
The morning began with mother making a 'heavy breakfast', extra bacon, along with honied bacon, extra cheese, tea in a 'grownup mug' and then Lesanda showed up, there was to be a practise for the next Archers game before the next Archers practise, which would be with the rest of the girls before finally fire walking with the girls and boys from the chain makers.
"And what does this matter?" Thato asked.
The Matriarch sat up; fingers locked.
"Every detail matters. Upon looking at the cave work in the Jokai lair. Theories have grown that the hunting patterns may be deeper than what were actually thought, for all we know your daughter and her friend have been stalked for a week. And yet, there appears to be divergence in the routine. The Jokai may have been passing through. Which would explain why there were multiple."
"You're getting ahead of the tale," Liyema said.
Both women shut up.
Liyema winked, Aphiwe realized, despite her lips being sealed how loud she could be. A weak smile escaped her lips. There were still so many questions.
How scary was the matriarch? How scary was Liyema? But most important, how scary was her mother and why were people so drawn in? Why did she matter so much?