A/N: This is the third in my The Return of Rose series. The others are The Return of Rose and the Zombie Bride. Enjoy!
"Zaphira, slow down!" Anuk said as the two of them headed into the forest to gather berries with the other women of the tribe.
"Oh Anuk, you are always so slow!" Zaphira taunted as she stopped to wait for her friend.
"Well there is a reason for that, you know." Anuk replied patting her enormous belly. "The little one inside me grows heavier by the day."
"When is it due?" Zaphira said as Anuk caught up to her.
"Any day now, gods willing." She replied as they resumed walking. "I suppose I shall be entering the birthing hut soon."
"I do not think it is fair that you should pick berries when you are this far along." Zaphira said. "You need to be swift out here just in case Waconas decide to attack."
"I do not fear the Waconas. I can hold my own against any one of them."
"Even so, there are still huge Onixes in the jungle. You have to be fast to outrun their sharp teeth and claws." Zaphira pointed out.
"I do not fear them either. I do not shudder at death. When the gods decree it is my time to go, there will be nothing to stop it, so why worry?"
She ran her hand alongside her jet-black hair keeping it out of her eyes as they headed deeper into the forest. The dense trees shaded the path, shrouding their bodies in shadow. As they walked, they saw a few other women of the tribe already picking berries. They looked up as they passed and nodded hello before resuming their work.
"Where do you want to go today?" Zaphira asked.
"Let's go over to Urai falls. It's always so peaceful there."
Zaphira nodded. They turned and headed off the path through the woods looking left and right at their surroundings, their keen eyes missing nothing as they made their way to the waterfall. Zaphira glanced over at her friend as they walked through the trees. She knew the real reason Anuk wanted to go to the waterfall. Her husband, Tapok, was fishing there with the other men and she wanted to be near him especially since the baby was due at any moment. It comforted her to be near him just in case her water broke.
Zaphira couldn't blame her for that. She had three children of her own and in each case they had been delivered while her husband was off hunting or making war with the Waconas. Even though Quinok men were forbidden from entering the birthing hut, she still wished he had been nearby. The Waconas were ruthless and their raids were both frequent and deadly. Women and children were sought after by both sides for sale in the slave markets and the worst place to be when a raid was taking place was the birthing hut. The Waconas constantly sent out scouts and so they usually knew when the men were out hunting or raiding the Wacona's villages and that was usually when they struck. Zaphira thought it unfair that only men were allowed to follow the way of the warrior since women were the most at risk from the Waconas. But, they had no choice. Their way of life had continued unchanged since the dreaming times and it would stay that way until the end of the world.
In the Quinok's world, only one woman was considered worthy enough to follow the man's path and that was their warrior goddess, Shizara. The maiden with skin as white as fallen snow and hair as gold as the sun was one of the protectors of the village and was venerated as a wise and fierce warrior. There were other gods that the Quinok worshipped, but she was one of the primary ones, second only in adoration to the sun god, Yatzutl, the ruler of all that existed. The irony of a female goddess being second only to the supreme god when she and the other women were at the lowest levels of society was not lost on her. Theirs was a hard life of nonstop toil and labor that ended only when their spirits left their bodies and went to join their ancestors in the Land of Dreams.
As for her and the other women, they had defied the men of the village and had set up a secret cult devoted to this wise and brave warrior that was so unlike them both in demeanor and appearance. It had been foretold for centuries that one day she would return to lead the Quinoks in battle against the Waconas and end the suffering and bloodshed forever. Then, a thousand years of peace and prosperity for the Quinoks would follow which would only be ended when Yatzutl stretched forth his fiery hand towards the planet and turned all that existed into ash. Since they didn't want to be caught and punished by the men for their disobedience, the Quinok women gathered together in secret in the deepest recesses of the forest to pray to Shizara, ask for her protection against the raids, and beg for her return so that the chaos could end at last.
They were nearing the waterfall now and both Anuk and Zaphira heard the roaring of the water. Zaphira smiled sadly. The village storyteller had often told them the tale of a young Quinok maiden named Urai who had fallen in love with a warrior named Walonda from the Wacona tribe. Their romance was forbidden and when Urai's father found them together, he ordered Walonda put to death. Urai sat on the cliff and cried day and night for her lost love, refusing to do anything else until her body became saturated with her tears and she became a waterfall. Urai's grieving father had given the waterfall her name so that all would remember her forever and he made sure that her story was passed down through the generations. Zaphira did not know if she could ever fall in love with a man from the Waconas, but she knew true love when she heard it and she always ached thinking of the crying maiden whose tears would flow nonstop forever.
She and Anuk stepped through the trees and saw the beautiful majesty of Urai falls towering above them. Further downstream, several Quinok men stood on shore spearing Eluk fish and putting them into baskets to take back to the village. They smiled and waved at them when they saw them and Zaphira giggled when Tapok yelled at Anuk and did a silly little dance for her. The two women turned and headed over to a clump of bushes beside the cliff. Po berries were one of the main staples of their diet along with Eluk and Onix meat. Other women were out gathering up roots and other types of berries, but most women gathered the Po berries first since they were so essential to their diet. They squatted down next to the bushes and sat their dried grass baskets down beside them. They talked quietly to one another as they picked the plump red berries.
For an hour or so, they picked the berries, occasionally eating one or two when they couldn't resist their pleasant scent any longer. They were so occupied with their task and talking to one another, that they didn't hear the high pitched cries of the Wacona raiders until it was too late. They leaped to their feet and looked on in horror as the Quinok men tried to fight back.
"Tapok!" Anuk cried when he saw a Wacona warrior strike him on the head with a heavy club.
Zaphira slammed her hand around her mouth silently thanking Shizara that Urai's weeping had muffled her cry.
"Come on, Anuk, there is nothing you can do for him!" she hissed in her ear. "We must flee before we are caught!"
Anuk was frozen for a moment watching as the warrior hit him on the head knocking him out. Zaphira knew from the way he hit him that he had only knocked him out, not killed him. She knew now that this raiding party's main purpose was gathering captives to be sacrificed to their heathen sun god, Bayon. But, just because they were there for sacrifices did not mean they would take slaves if they could find them.
"Come on!" Zaphira snarled in Anuk's ear.
Anuk finally found the strength to move and she and Zaphira dashed into the forest as the Wacona's war cries echoed in their ears. As they rushed back to the village, they trilled loudly and shrilly, giving a warning to others that Wacona were near them. As they ran, they could see the other women and children through the trees running towards the safety of the village. Their trills joined the two women's voices until the forest was alive with their cries. Zaphira hoped that would be enough to scare the Wacona warriors off since she had no desire to watch them enter the village and cause trouble there.
Finally, after several minutes, she and the other women reached the village. They ran through it trilling and shouting warnings alerting the men of the village that their friends and family were in danger. The men instantly ran from their huts, bows, arrows, and spears in hand, to defend their homes and people from attack. As the women and children ran one way, they ran the other and their war whoops replaced the trills as they plunged headlong into the dense forest in search of their foes. The women, children, and elderly hurried into the center of the village and huddled together in a hut while several older warriors stood guard around it with spears. The women soothed the terrified children and silenced the crying infants as they listened for any sign that their village was under attack.
A few hours later, the warriors returned from the forest and signaled that all was safe. The women walked out of the hut and ran up to them. Anuk and a few others began to weep when they told them that none of the men had been recovered and the Waconas were long gone by the time they reached them. They had searched the area around the falls, but no one had been found. They had finally given up the search and returned home. Zaphira hugged her friend tight as she wailed and cursed the Waconas for taking the man she loved.
"Oh Shizara, why won't you come and save us from them?" Zaphira heard her whisper under her breath.
She sighed and said a silent prayer herself hoping that their warrior goddess would hear and finally come.
Early the next morning Hatarok, the village shaman, stepped out of his hut and walked into the forest. He was going to speak with the spirits on behalf of his tribe and ask for help against the Waconas. He carried a small pouch filled with herbs and magical items to aid him. He intended to go deep into the woods and meditate until he went into a trance and communicated with those in the Land of Dreams.
After about an hour, he reached a suitable spot. He stepped into the clearing and picked up a branch from the forest floor. He drew a wide circle of protection in the dirt and spread smooth colored stones at several points sealing the circle from any evil spirits who might try to possess him. He sat down in the center of the circle, reached into the pouch and brought out a smaller pouch. Inside was Lepsin root, a powerful hallucinogen that allowed him to see those who dwelled beyond the living world. He pulled out a pinch of the purple root and put it under his tongue, letting it dissolve. He set the pouch down beside him and closed his eyes, steadying his breathing as he entered a meditative state. Once he felt the Lepsin root begin to take effect, he began to chant quietly, alerting the spirits to his presence and imploring them to show him a vision of their salvation. He opened his eyes and chanted louder as the veil around the living world fell away and he saw into the Land of Dreams.
As he continued to chant, he suddenly saw something moving through the trees towards him. He was unafraid knowing that it was only a friendly spirit coming to help him and not the hated Waconas. He chanted louder welcoming the spirit and asking for its wisdom and guidance. As the spirit entered the clearing, he saw it was an unfamiliar animal. It walked on four legs and was covered in long, white fur. Its eyes glowed with a golden radiance and Hatarok knew it to be an emissary of the spirit world. He spoke to this strange creature begging for help and asking for a sign that it would do so. The creature paused for a moment and suddenly it began to change shape. Hatarok's eyes widened when the creature took on the form of a beautiful woman with snow-white skin and golden hair.
"Shizara," he breathed.
Shizara smiled softly and came towards him. She looked off to her right and stretched out her hand. Hatarok saw a vision of a strange blue hut, a man with snow white skin and hair brown like the tree trunks, a woman with snow white skin and hair as red as blood and a woman with hair like his people's and skin a shade darker than his own. He stared at them in wonderment, then the vision shifted, and now he saw Wacona warriors lying scattered around the forest in pools of their own blood. He looked back at Shizara who smiled at him.
"I come to make things right." She said to him.
Then, she vanished from sight and the veil fell once more over the spirit world separating the dead from the living. Hatarok bowed his head and said a prayer of thanks to Shizara for giving him the vision. Then, rising, he gathered up his things, erased the circle of protection and hurried back to the village to let them know the goddess was coming to help them at last.