“Oh, thank you, thank you, Mzee! I don’t know what we’d do without you.”
“It was my pleasure, Dianna. Take your girl home now and put her to bed. A little rest and she’ll be right as rain.”
Before Dianna could resume giving thanks, the door to the little elderwood hut burst open and crashed against the wall. Young Dianna started, but her companion – an elderly lady – did not.
Bright sunlight streamed in and there was a loud shuffle, clank and stomp as three steel plate-clad soldiers marched inside. All were large, pale-skinned men, stinking of sweat from the tropical heat, and all were red in the face from sunburn.
The smallest of them cleared his throat self-importantly. “Excuse me,” he barked with militaristic stiffness, “but do I have the pleasure of addressing one Mzee Lou? My name is Sir Edmund Garquon. I am a Knight of Pacia, and I have come a-seeking one Mzee Lou. Is she here?” He surveyed the three women in the room – one old with her back turned to him, one young staring at him with round eyes, and one a child, hiding behind the younger woman. “Well? Do you not speak Traveller’s Tongue? What’s the matter with you? I asked you a question!”
The older woman spoke lowly to the younger in her native Kwi patois. “Go. Get little Mina out of here.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Hey!” snapped the smallest of the Knights, who was still almost six feet tall. “What’s all this here whispering, eh? Have something to hide, do we, ladies? You! Turn and face me when I’m speaking to you!”
The elderly woman finally turned to face the men, pushing the younger woman towards the door as she did so. There was only one door into the hut, however, so she ended up pushing Dianna toward the soldiers, who made no move to let her leave.
“Excuse me,” Dianna squeaked in Traveller’s, trying to sidle past the men.
They bunched together, blocking her way.
“Nobody is going anywhere!” Sir Garquon said, frowning.
He scrutinised the women. The younger, a meek specimen with unusually dark skin even for a Chilpaean, was obviously scared out of her wits, as was the onyx-haired child clinging to her long green skirt. The elderly woman, however, now locked eyes with him unreservedly, without seeming taken aback in the slightest. She had flinty grey eyes, thought Sir Garquon; eyes that had seen a great deal, too much perhaps. She wore an immaculate, plain white robe that covered her from neck to ankle and a white headscarf that contrasted strongly with her cocoa complexion.
“Nobody is going anywhere,” Sir Garquon repeated when no one else spoke, “until I know who is who and who is Mzee Lou. Tell me your names.”
“My name is Dianna,” said Dianna quickly, “and dis is my daughter, Mina … Sir.”
The elderly woman frowned at the younger for a split second, but then her forehead smoothed and her expression became calm, detached again.
“Not Mzee Dianna?” asked Sir Garquon.
Dianna shook her head emphatically. “No! Mzee is an honorific reserved for … special women.”
Sir Garquon smiled unpleasantly at the older woman. “That would make you Mzee Lou then, I presume?”
“I am she,” the white-robed woman agreed evenly, her voice smooth and rich as syrup.
She moved across the hut and picked up a chibouk, the bowl of which she packed with sweet baui herb and then lit with a sandalwood scented taper that sent little smoke rivers meandering up to the ceiling.
“I have heard a great deal about you, Mzee Lou,” sneered the lead Knight. “I now see with my own eyes that you partake of the hallucinogenic, baui. It’s illegal where I come from, don’t you know? And I arrive in time to hear this lady here thanking you in all earnestness. Tell me, what deserves such gratitude? What service did you render this young lady?”
“Not her, but her daughter,” responded Mzee Lou. “Mina here was taken by an illness, and I merely offered an old folk remedy.”
Sir Garquon raised his eyebrows and then transferred his unforgiving gaze to Dianna. “And this … remedy? Did it work?”
“Oh yes, Sir,” said Dianna, bobbing her head, not meeting his eyes. “When I awoke this morning and saw my little girl, I would have said that the Ferrymen would have taken her down the River before the end of the day … But now she is restored, healthy as a clam! And I have only Mzee Lou to thank.”
“Describe to me this … remedy,” ordered the Knight pensively.
“Well,” Dianna began unsurely, organising her thoughts, “Mzee Lou began by burning herbs and incense, and then she rubbed a smell ointment on my daughter’s chest and had her inhale deeply. Then, she set fire to some long, green leaves and used them to billow smoke all over Mina. Oh, and she was murmuring the whole time – like a little singsong murmur … Sir.”
“A little singsong murmur?” Sir Garquon mused aloud. “Like a spell?”
“I – I don’t know about that, Sir,” stuttered Dianna, staring at her feet.
“Hmm,” the lead Knight hummed. “Very well. You may go.”
The other two Knights stepped aside, and Dianna and Mina fled the hut with all haste and nary a backward glance.
Sir Garquon studied the old woman left in the hut. “The people in these here parts claim that you are capable of the most extraordinary feats, Mzee Lou. They say that you can command the weather, enrich the crops, move hearts and minds and restore a man to all haleness even if he be knocking on death’s door. I would know – is this true?”
“I have been blessed wid some meagre talents,” Mzee Lou admitted modestly, her accent preventing her from perfectly rendering Traveller’s Tongue. There was no th in Chilpaean patois.
“Meagre talents?” Sir Garquon repeated mockingly. “Let me tell you a tale of a group of women much like yourself with meagre talents. They are known now, posthumously, as the Witches of Convent. Perhaps you have heard of them? They conquered almost the entirety of the known world and ruled over it until just a couple of hundred years ago, until we – the Knights of Pacia – put them to the sword. Power corrupted them, don’t you know, and misled them from their original goals, from the Prophet’s original goals. It was decided, you see, that the Witches could not be trusted to live, for they could exercise far too much power over the minds of ordinary men and women. They had sullied the Prophet’s legacy, and now we are doing all we can to restore it.”
“Restore his legacy?” Mzee Lou asked incredulously, blowing plumes of bluish-white smoke. “Is dat what you’re calling dese Crusades? A restoration? Tell me, noble Knight, how many converts have you made since you came to da island?” Sir Garquon paled. “And how many pagans have you put to da sword?” Sir Garquon licked his lips. “Very few in da one case and many tousands in da udder, da way I hear it. Do not preach to me, zealot, for I know what you are. Murderous dogs on da leash of a tyrant!”
Sir Edumnd Garquon’s complexion turned ruddy with rage. “Listen here, you filthy, dirt-dwelling savage,” he snarled, “the Knights of Pacia are the cleansing wave that will wash away the evils of the world – namely each and every Witch to walk Maradoum! Our mission has brought us most recently to this squalid cesspool of an island, which you call Chilpaea, and upon our arrival we were inundated with stories of mystical women performing mysterious acts that seemed like magic all over the island. One such woman was identified as Mzee Lou. It is our mission to bring all such women to trial and, if necessary, to justice.”
“Oh, I have heard about your justice,” the old woman replied, a picture of tranquility even in the face of the Knights rage as she set down her still smoking chibouk. “I have heard all about your people invading my country. I have heard all about da dozens of women you’ve been burning at da stake after you uneart any crumb of evidence. I tink I heard it said recently dat a woman was killed for having da skull of an ancestor in her hut. Dat is not magic, good Sir; dat is merely a Chilpaean tradition. Once a year, we lift our dead from da eart in which dey are entombed and we celebrate wid dem. We sing and dance and eat and drink wid dem. It is our way of honouring dem, dat is all. You come to dis country, swinging your swords and raising your pyres, but you do not understand what you do, Knight. You do not understand Chilpaea, and you do not understand da Gods.”
“The Gods!” Sir Garquon wrinkled his nose as though at a foul scent. “There is proof of your heresy right there, woman! There is but one God – the Goddess, the All Mother! I am going to have to ask you to accompany us back to my headquarters at once.” He waved a hand. “Terrence, Jorun, take her.”
As the two big Knights grabbed her arms, Mzee Lou said, “You needn’t force me, Sir Garquon. I am a pacifist. I will come willingly and trust to da Gods to sort dis mess out.”
As soon as they made their egress from the little wooden hut, Mzee Lou’s heart sank like a stone. Skipping towards them through the village was her fifteen-year-old daughter, Kareen, looking as pretty as always with her dark skin shining in the afternoon sun, her raven hair flouncing around and her blue dress billowing in the breeze. When she saw the men holding onto her mother, Kareen stopped dead and stared. Mzee Lou shook her head minutely; no, she did not need any help.
Kareen ignored her, came running over and stopped ten paces away. “Oi! What are you doing wid my mudder?” she accosted the Knights in Traveller’s.
“Out of the way, bitch!” one of the Knights holding Mzee Lou growled.
Unfortunately, Sir Garquon understood her inflections a little better. “Your mother?” he asked in surprise in Traveller’s, spinning to gaze at Mzee Lou, who looked away. The Knight turned back to Kareen. “Well, young lady, you’re in luck. We are taking your mother to see our headquarters, and you’re privileged enough to come with us. Sir Jorun, grab her.”
The Knight who had sworn at Kareen let go of Mzee Lou’s arm and advanced on the young girl. “Come on now, darling,” he drawled. “Don’t make it hard on yourself.”
“Why are you taking my mudder?”
“You must know that we are here to eliminate all traces of witchcraft,” said Sir Garquon. “We are merely taking you to … remove you as suspects. Once your innocence is proven, you will be free to leave.”
Kareen knew all too well what the Justiquans had come for, and she had no intention of letting them take her or her mother. She snarled, “Hachak’hithi-iriscamae’glit!”
She cast out her hands and from them sprang a mass of gossamer white tendrils like cobwebs. She did not target Jorun, though; she targeted Terrence, the Knight who was still holding onto Mzee Lou. As the great swathes of web engulfed the man from head to toe, wrapping him up like a mummy, he grunted in surprise and Kareen screamed in Kwi, “Go, mother! Flee! Get away from here! Go!”
His face pinched in hate, Jorun drew his sword and stomped towards Kareen with only a couple of paces left to cover. Rather than try to run, Kareen turned her attention to Jorun and tried to incant again. Mzee Lou could see that her daughter would be too late, and she started invoking her own spell as fast as she could, knowing that she would also be too late.
When it happened, Mzee Lou did not know how she finished her cantrap. When it happened, it was like her heart shattered into a thousand tiny sharp shards, each of which needled her from the inside, gouging and rending until she felt wholly hollowed. It was like the sun burst, like the whole world broke apart, like the sky fell down on her, like the seas rose up and engulfed all the lands. All of that would have been preferable to the reality, she thought numbly, as she watched Jorun drag his longsword out of Kareen’s chest. She locked eyes with her daughter for a moment and witnessed her cough up a little blood, and then the spark faded from her eyes and Kareen slumped to the ground, as limp as a rag doll.
Vibrating with emotion, her weeping eyes popping out of her skull, Mzee Lou completed her spell. “Pa’ptheon!”
Arcane winds whipped around her, billowing her robes, and the air crackled with energy. The resulting wave of force she cast from her palms blew the killer, Jorun, off his feet and sent him flying through the air some ten yards to sprawl on his face. Augmented by her passion, that same wave of energy pulsed out from her in all directions like a ripple, lifting Sir Garquon and the mummified Terrence off their feet and leaving them in the dirt too.
Mzee Lou rushed over to her daughter’s side, but all she could do was cry and cradle a corpse. The lungs and heart had been pierced; not even the great Mzee Lou could revive her now. So, cry she did, sitting and rocking back and forth with her daughter’s head in her lap. The sun that beat down on her seemed incongruous, like it did not belong to the scene, to her world. When she heard Jorun grunting as he got back to his feet, though, she felt a new passion take root and grow within her. She felt this emotion, wholly new to her, grow with an awful rapidity.
She could not describe it; it was not anger, or outrage, or wrath, or fury. Apoplexy came closest to the truth, she suspected, but she saw then that words were pale things, washed out representations of ideas fully fleshed out only in the minds of men. Poor imitations, meagre simulacrums they were. The emotion coursed through her veins as strongly as if it had replaced her very blood, pounding in her temples, throbbing in her skull, tingling in her fingertips and aching in her chest, in the hole where her heart used to be.
Before she knew what she was doing, she bore numb witness to her own hand rise up, its fingers directed towards the Knight, Jorun. She felt her lips mumbling incoherent noises as if they belonged to someone else, watching her own actions from behind the veil of rage that blotted out her reasoning. She had unconsciously delved into the deepest recesses of her mind and dusted off one of the most terrible spells she knew; an ancient curse not spoken in an age.
“Tomfa korono’lombaad hiijimaitha!”
Sir Jorun, who was back on his feet and had begun advancing on the old woman, stopped suddenly as she finished speaking and looked down at himself in perplexity. Also rising, Sirs Garquon and Terrence beheld their companion in abject horror, perceiving him to swell up like an inflated bladder, like he was being pumped full of air. Since they could not see most of his body, they saw only his hands and face bloating like a waterlogged corpse and turning an unhealthy purple hue, but they assumed – correctly – that his whole body was undergoing the ordeal. A torturous ordeal it evidently was, for the two Knights observed their companion groaning in agony and begging them for help. Soon, though, his tongue was so swollen that he could no longer talk, no longer breathe. He engorged even more and began to turn blue in the face.
“Please, Mzee Lou,” Sir Garquon pleaded wretchedly, standing still and holding out clasped hands to the old woman, “show him mercy! He’s but a fool – a fool, I say!”
Mzee Lou’s voice was not at all placid any more when she spoke. Now, it was a sepulchral tolling, an anguished reverberation, a prophecy of doom. “No mercy!”
Sir Jorun popped.
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