Mabreka - told by Gangi Cheng-Ho, an old Zoraï Sage
After the destruction of the rainbows during the kitin war I had taken to the bush with my family and a dozen survivors from our village. I still recall the continual pang in my stomach, the anxiety, the insecurity. We roamed from one shelter to the next oft times sleeping in trees whenever the smell of kitin was still thick in the air. We had been living this precarious life for full four years when one day tidings came to my father from a Kami of a road that would take us to new lands, where the rainbows had delivered our brethren.
"We must leave before the hot summer sets in," urged my mother clasping her hands in hope when my father announced the news to all the group.
"But there's a problem, the road lies in the northern regions."
"Then we cannot go," said Si Li-Ching, our village spiritual elder.
"But why?" my mother implored. The deception in her plea shot like a bolt through my heart.
"Because it would mean crossing Matis and Fyros territory."
"The old one is right, Lian, not only would we have to avoid the kitins, but also the blade of the barbarians. He knows, he has seen the wars between the three peoples, their thirst for blood has no end..."
"For many seasons now, the relentless force of the Kamis and the Karavan has been bending the kitins in their resistance, and like the tallest tree in high winds, before long they will be completely broken, before long these lands will be ours again to rebuild..."
"But when, your reverence?! How much longer must we endure?!" pleaded my mother who then turned to my father with a hand on her swollen belly, I'd never seen such fire in her eyes: the desperate passion of a mother for the life of her children. "No," she said, "this may be our only chance to start afresh, we must leave, Leng. Look at us, we become more like savages everyday, nothing is clean here anymore! I go, and I go now, Leng!" My mother turned on her heels, sped round our makeshift quarters like a whirlwind gathering things together and took off out of camp with my little sisters tagging on her dress behind her. I turned to my father whom I loved dearly, but what son could leave his mother alone in the wilderness?! So I skipped off to join her myself despite him calling me back. To my relief we hadn't traveled three hundred yards when my father was level with us. He tried to reason with my mother but her eyes were blazing before her and she marched on as mulish as a madakam.
"Lian, listen to me!"
"No, Leng, I won't fester in these lands no more!"
"Wait, Lian. Hold on!!" My father took her by the arm and then perched his large hands on the rounds of her shoulders. Her eyes fired their determination at him.
"I'm determined, Leng, I want to live under a roof, I want my children to have a proper education, a future..."
"Lian, my dear Lian, but you're going the wrong way, the north is in the opposite direction! Besides, the night will soon be upon us, better head out in the morning..." My mother, now that she took in the full meaning of his words, slung her arms around his neck and pressed her head into his chest.
The next morning we left amid tears for the life we were leaving and determination for the new one beyond. The others of our village would not be persuaded to join us, preferring to stay behind in the lands where they were born.
Before we set out my father pulled me to one side: "Son," he said gravely, "in the jaws of strife every homin is equal, you must be brave and now learn to be as good as your elders." He then gave me a dagger which I tucked into my belt like a sword. "I want you to watch over your mother and your sisters at all times. My hands will be full with finding resources and nourishment and steering the mektoubs through the barbarian lands to the great road."
It took us a full season to reach that road. Fresh new colors danced before our eyes and strange whooping and cackling played on our ears as we threaded our way through the lush forest where we learnt to pick berries and fruit. My father provided venison with his magic, some of the game we found there bore a likeness to that of the jungle often differing only in the color of the hide.
The desert was hardest going of all and the fat of the land was oft times pretty thin there. Worse than this, the Kami had told my father that we would come to a `line of water' that would lead us west to the great road, but when we arrived at the given place guided by the stars, we found the river had run dry. We could but trek on along the barren riverbed though my father was none too easy about riding like this in open country, especially as our mektoub packers had become strangely restless as if they sensed something following us over the ridge of the bank. Fearing we were being tracked by some wild beast or barbarians, he spent many a sleepless night keeping watch over us. One morning the mektoubs were particularly jittery, my sisters were placed on the beasts so that we could lengthen our stride before the heat sapped our energy. "The river must resurface somewhere yonder," he said, " the Kami could not have been mistaken. Besides, I can almost smell it in the air." We trudged on along the soft dry ground as best we could sucking coral pebbles to deceive our thirst and humming songs to take our minds off the droning insects and our aching legs. It was my mother who suffered most.
I remember noticing her feet were swollen with so much marching in the dry silt. She never complained though I knew she was in pain and that it would do the baby inside her belly no good. We'd halted in the shade of a badoa tree to take refuge from the scorching sun a while until it abated. I slipped up the bank in search for takoda leaves to bathe her feet despite my father calling me back. Over the ridge of the bank my eyes were met by the sight of the ruins of a deserted settlement. Carefully, dagger at the ready, I sneaked to the nearest tumbledown dwellings. There wasn't a soul to be seen, just the sound of the wind playing on the creaking bits of doors. From what I could make out it had been an outpost of some kind and I must have hit upon a guard room. Under a pile of rubble I caught sight of the tip of a boot. I pushed the debris away and found its double, just the thing for my mother! I tugged at both boots till they came loose to reveal the bony feet of a skeleton no doubt belonging to a guard buried under what must have been the roof. I gave a yelp, tucked the boots under my arm and bolted down the embankment as fast as my legs would carry me.
My panic and fright was well worth my mother's delight, though none too feminine, the desert boots fitted her like a glove though I didn't say who they'd belonged to! I remember how she clapped her hands just like a child. It suddenly struck me that, beneath her mothering ways, there still resided in her the little girl she had been at my age. I was swollen with pride in the secret knowledge that now she knew she could lean on me. And at the grand age of seven and a half I felt as tall as my father.
When I told of the outpost my father gently clipped the back of my head. "Come, brave little frippo," he said, "I've a feeling your outpost has another surprise in store for us. Where there's a homin settlement there's a water well!" We all pushed up the bank to the highest point of the dune, and there, on the other side of the village, not fifty paces from where we had been trekking along the dried river bed, a beautiful shimmering ribbon of water thread its way as far as the eye could see from the east to the west. It in fact turned out to be a narrow canal five paces wide that must have been dug by the hands of homins. "This is the water line the Kami spoke of!" exclaimed my father. "To think we've been walking virtually parallel to it, which explains the mektoubs' restlessness. They've smelt it for the past days!!"
But our high spirits were quickly dashed on perceiving a dark spec way yonder where the dust was kicked up which, we figured, could only be a large company of barbarians making their way too to the grand route. "We need not fret," concluded my father, "they are at least half a day's march ahead of us and have their sights fixed as do we to the west. We shall ride along the water line as long as we keep our distance."
So thereon we followed the water canal which assured us of fish and refreshment, virtually all the way to the grand road. What is more, we no longer needed to worry where to set up camp for the night, we simply had to follow in their footsteps, we even became reassured by their presence ahead. For the way was no longer an unknown passage as we could see with our own eyes others preceding us, be they barbarians they were still homins with similar needs to us. That much we'd grasped on walking through the ruins of the ravaged outpost. Rummaging through them instructed us as to their desert ways and their ingenuity never ceased to make us marvel. On settling into camp one evening, my mother found an ingenious instrument for peeling succulent cactus fruit that the barbarian convoy had left behind.
Relief and jubilation filled our bodily fiber when at last we came upon the first sign post as promised by the Kami that pointed the way to the newfound lands. Every sign post thereafter never failed to lift our spirits in the knowledge that there would be an end to our ordeal, just as long as we pushed on. We knew too that it would take many more seasons for us to reach our final destination, and that no doubt heartache and anguish lay in wait. I well recall one incident in particular that came to give us another vision of hominity...
We were traveling over some grueling terrain following a canyon ridge when the trail forked off into two tracks. From where we were standing we could see that one sloped round the canyon to the bottom and up again. The other track cut a path to a wooden bridge spanning the ravine to the other side. We were desperately lacking water at that point, it was sweltering and we were tired. Across the bridge the going looked all the smoother, the vegetation so much greener and there was a waterfall glistening in the scorching sun. But what really made my father's mind up was seeing the silhouettes of barbarian mektoub cavaliers ahead on the slow track in the distance climbing a hill, brandishing their swords, then riding back up towards us. "We have at least a two hour start on them, we can make it to the bridge if we hurry, once over we'll cut it down, it's our only chance!"
We hurried on towards the bridge with the barbarians at our heels and closing in fast. I couldn't make out why they were so determined to catch us, though I had no time to dwell on the thought, I had all my energy fixed on moving my legs and controlling the sinking feeling that we wouldn't make it. We were but fifty paces from the bridge and the galloping of mektoubs rumbled louder in my brain with every step. "Don't look back, run for the bridge!!" shouted my father.
We pushed on, I looked back despite myself to see three roaring riders brandishing their swords not four hundred paces behind us. The bridge was but thirty yards ahead but then our mektoubs became panicky, started to rear up, and my father reached for my sisters just in time before they bolted! Still we pushed on, we were barely twenty paces from the bridge, but then as we passed an alcove in the canyon wall horror struck twice!! In the form of two great kirostas, kitin soldiers, that had been lying in wait!
They came lumbering at us clicking their enormous powerful pincers. My father stood alone before them trying to hold them back with his magic as we got to the bridge only to find that planks were missing making it impassable.
My father was weakening before my very eyes, his spells now failed him, and his mace was becoming slower, the kirostas would soon be on top of him. I expected the barbarians to halt in their chase on seeing the creatures but they broke into a faster gallop and came storming towards us. I drew my dagger and stood before my mother and sisters as suddenly arrows, spears and magic unknown to us went hurtling through the air then hitting the monsters full on. The riders jumped off their saddles to fight side by side with my father sinking their lethal weapons into the chinks of the kitin carapace to finish them off.
A great Matis barbarian strode up to my sapless father who had sunk to his knees in shear fatigue. The Matis warrior whose name was Matini, took him by the shoulders and lifted him back onto his feet.
"Homin," he said, "never have I seen such a show of magic."
"Never in my life have I seen one homin hold off two kitin soldiers!" said Kalus, the Fyros.
"I thought we'd never make it to yous in time," said Bremmen, the Tryker.
Though the words we did not thoroughly understand, the meaning was plain to see. It was plain too that my father was moved by their fraternity.
"We've been following your progress since you joined the water line at the ruins of Pekith. We saw you take the bad road, we tried to signal warning of the kitin ambush, then we doubled back."
"Homins... brothers, now I see clear, how can I repay you?" gesticulated my father with his right hand on his heart.
"By riding with us to the newfound lands, in unity we shall stand better chance," said the Matis. "Come, we must be on before other soldier kitins appear, the area is infested, there is a Prime Root opening nearby where they nest."
"There are many more of our company yonder, we shall give you food and drink," reassured Kalus.
"By the way, I hope you liked the cactus peeler, madam!" winked Bremmen to my mother. "My wife thought it would come in handy for you."
Our mektoubs were retrieved for my sister and mother. "Come, there is room for two," said the Matis to my father and heaved him onto his saddle. My youngest sister took place behind the Fyros, and I had a great time traveling with Bremmen, the bravest and wittiest of homins there ever was.
My baby brother was born on that road amid homins of every race. As a tribute to our peoples united my father named him Matini Bremmen Kalus Cheng-Ho! Though we called him Mabreka for short!