So, I’m doing something a little different, this week, for T.S. Bazelli’s Author Aerobics: I’m telling a story set in the same world as the story I wrote last week. It’s not a direct continuation, but the two tales are related. Here was this week’s challenge:
Write a story (1000 words or less) that involves multiple layers of conflict. This week’s theme: “shadows”.
At 1,262 words, this one is longer than the first story set in this world. And as with last week, this week I still feel like I’m touching on something that could be good, but I didn’t quite grasp it. Anyway, I’ll let you all be the judge of:
By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.
Marobi descended the dimly lit stairs into the heart of the Kaimbodi Shadow Shrine. His bare feet flapped against the damp paving stones set loosely in the wet soil. He reached out his hands to steady himself, brushing the earthen walls formed by the deep roots of Kaimbodi, the brightwood tree that sheltered the shadow shrine. At irregular intervals the roots glowed faintly with a warm, yellow light that threw strange shadows down the long, narrow stairs.
A few steps ahead, Adumbe led, holding aloft a small sphere of light in his copper-studded glove. The shadow wards guarded the secret of their brightgloves jealously, but Marobi knew that the copper was a critical part. Still, it was one secret among many that Marobi was not sure he was prepared for. There was still so much he didn’t understand. It had been only three months since he had come to the Kaimbodi Shadow Shrine, and already Adumbe said the Elders were prepared to test him. Marobi did not feel ready to be tested.
“Wait here,” Adumbe held up his left hand, pausing.
Marobi stopped. The steps continued down, but he could see they leveled off ahead. Adumbe continued down, then disappeared behind a heavy linen curtain after a dozen paces. With him went the globe of light, leaving Marobi alone in the pale yellow glow from Kaimbodi’s roots. The roots pulsed and dimmed, leaving the stairs in deep shadows. Long minutes passed in silence except the distant, deep thrum of the brightwood tree’s heart, so low Marobi almost couldn’t hear it. And then there was a voice in the darkness, not Adumbe’s, a woman’s, maybe one of the Elders.
“Marobi, you may step through the curtain into the heart of Kaimbodi’s shrine.”
Marobi did as the voice bid, parting the thick linen and stepping through. The chamber beyond was spacious. A globe in copper brackets hung over the center of the room, throwing long shadows against the earthen walls. Eighteen figures circled the room, robed from the waste to the floor in Tabate colors, yellow, red, and green and bare from the waste to the shoulder: nine men and nine women. Marobi didn’t see Adumbe, and he suddenly felt uncomfortable. In three month’s he’d hardly been out of the shadow ward’s sight.
Ahead of Marobi a woman of perhaps fifty summers stepped forward to the edge of a circle made in red pigment at the center of the room. She beckoned Marobi to step forward. He went to the center of the circle.
“Marobi of Kashya Nagoth, you have come here as a pilgrim, to learn the ways of the shadow ward. Is this so?” Her voice was low and somber, marked by her age, the same voice that had called to him outside the chamber.
Marobi nodded. “It is so.”
“Why have you come?”
Marobi gave her a confused look. “I… have come to learn the ways of the…”
She raised a hand to cut him off, giving him a long stare. “Why have you come?”
This was the test? Questions to which the Elders already knew the answers? Marobi felt a flush of anger as his heart pounded in his chest. He had no patience for these trifles. He knew he was not ready to learn all the secrets of the shadow wards, but he was here to learn, not to play with riddles! He had promised himself over the bruised and bloodied body of his sister, may she dance forever in the heavens, that he would avenge her and protect his people. But he had not the blood in his veins to learn the ways of the brighthands. He did not have their fire. And so he’d joined the pilgrims. With the pilgrims was the refuge of the shadows in the deep jungle, the counterweight to the fire of the brighthands. It was the hand of the shadow wards that truly sheltered the Nations. Marobi tried to calm himself.
“I have come to protect the Tabate and the Nations, to balance light with shadow.”
The Elder shook her head again. “No. Why have you come?”
Marobi clenched and unclenched his fist. He clenched his teeth. Would he fail the first question of the test?
“I have come,” Marobi worked his jaw, his heart beating even faster, “Because Sukotu raiders killed my sister. Because they burned my village and slaughtered my people. But I cannot strike them with spears of light. So I must learn to smother them with darkness. I have come for vengeance!”
The Elder nodded at last. Her eyes were unreadable. “That is correct.” She turned away, then, stepping away from the feeble light of the single orb. “But you have come too late, Marobi of Kashya Nagoth. Even now Sukotu warriors are attacking the great city of Timbota. There are few brighthands left among the Tabate, and the way of the Shadow Wards is not to strike out, but to pull away.”
Marobi still did not understand this. He had seen shadow wards fight with as much ferocity as any brighthand. He had seen shadow wards kill with darkness as effectively as any brighthand killed with shards of light.
The Elder turned again to face him. “We know what you are thinking. But answer this: Do you know why night flees the day, and why day flees the night?”
Another puzzling question. Another riddle. But this was something any child could answer. “It is because light and darkness are enemies. The light stabs at the heart of darkness, and darkness smothers the light. It has always been so.”
“No,” she said. “Have you learned nothing from Kaimbodi?”
An old man stepped forward, then, to stand by her side, robed in like manner. “Young one, these are deep truths you must learn if you will complete your pilgrimage and become a shadow ward. Light creates darkness. Without light, there is no shadow. Night follows day and day follows night because the face of the earth turns. When she faces the light, it is day. When she turns to face away, it is night because the light casts her shadow upon us. The day feeds the brighthands, because the fire of the day is in their blood. But the night nurtures the shadow wards because that fire must be cooled, or the world would burn.”
The second Elder’s words shamed Marobi. Hadn’t Adumbe spoken of these things? And yet, Marobi could only think of the body of his sister lying on the jungle floor, burned by spears of light, bleeding and beaten. The fury he felt then still raged in his mind. The Elder woman turned again and drew as close as she could to the edge of the circle without crossing over. She shook her head sadly.
“Marobi, you are not ready to cross the threshold. There is still fire in your veins. As long as your blood burns, you cannot embrace the cooling touch of the darkness. As long as you turn your face to the light, your back will be in shadow. You must continue your pilgrimage. Go now to the Mufendai Shadow Shrine to seek the learning of the Elders there. Perhaps if you can quell the fires that burn still in your blood quickly, you may soon return to quell the fires that burn in Timbota.” She turned her back on him again, and Marobi knew she would not face him again. One by one, the elders each turned their face away from him. Struggling to hold back the tears, Marobi turned away from them.