Firelight
CHAPTER
1
Chapter
The sparks withered and died out, leaving only their memory. The memory of them burning bright, swirling uncontrollably, and then ceasing, and cascading back into the flames. The air around me was smoky, and heavy. The fire had almost completely died by now, the sliver of flame left quickly fading. It was a peaceful sight. I closed my eyes, and tried to stand still. To calm myself. But nothing came, only restlessness. I pulled open the flap of the tent, and nodded to my waiting village, all staring expectantly at me. Their eager faces, and the taunting choosh of their metal bracelets as they rejoiced, throwing their fists in the air, was almost too much to bare. My mother stepped forward, a warm smile on her tender face.
“You are a chief, are you not my daughter?”
I hung my head, about to expose myself. About to be a disappointment, to her, to everyone. The words hung in my head, poking and prodding me like needles against my skull. Then I decided to do it. I lied.
“Yes, mother. It’s my destiny.”
A feast was held in my honor that night. After my supposed vision in the fire, they had been worshiping me, hanging on to my every word. Our hunters brought kill from the surrounding woods, and corn and fruit was picked by our gatherers. They all claimed that this was a cause for celebration, but for me, it was all a massive lie. I paced around the tent, pondering what to do. I had dishonored them. Not only my people, but the ancestors themselves. The fire was an ancient tradition that I had betrayed. For as long as the Madilim tribe had existed, the hearth had lived in harmony with it. And from it birthed the fire. All of the tribal leaders oldest offspring would kneel in front of it, and see their destiny in its smoke. Those fit to lead would see themselves matching the Madilim’s to victory. Those who had the destiny to fail, would see a vision of themselves causing the tribe peril. Those unfit to lead would step down, and give the position to the second eldest offspring. But I knew, everyone know, that my sister Annika was not fit to lead. Yet, in the vision, I had seen myself kneeling on a drab cloth, my tribe surrounding me, looking horror stricken. And now, that would come true, and I would be exposed as the failure I was. But, what choice did I have?
I sighed miserably. Everyone had worked hard to make sure that I looked my best that night. My mother draped me in an elegant buffalo hide dress, that went down to my feet, where I had placed deerskin moccasins. A sash of rabbit pelt had been prepared for me, and I wore proudly around my waist. Glimmering beads were strung from my silky, black hair, and an Amaryllis flower had been placed behind my ear. My face was painted with the bright purple sap from the surrounding Mulberry trees. My high cheekbones streaked with ochre clay from the waters.
“They’re ready for you, Naia,” a soothing voice came from behind me.
I turned to see my father, his dark eyes staring admirably at my clothes. A large feather dress sat on his stately head, and a fine loincloth was wrapped around his legs.
I nodded politely and gave him a small smile. He fixed me a steely gaze. “Remember, you are their new leader. You must play the part.”
He tilted my chin up and looked proudly into my doe like wide brown eyes. “I will, Father,” I vowed, quietly.
He wrapped his strong arm around mine and lead me out of the tent.
As soon as we entered the grounds, I was drowned in cheers of appreciation. My mother stepped forward, wearing a divine beaver skin dress. A brightly colored flower-wreath held tightly in her thin hands.
“Yesterday, you were my daughter. Today, you are my leader,” she pronounced proudly, placing it around my neck.
I managed a watery smile, and stared out at my people, thrusting their bodies up in celebration. Beyond them, was the forest. The dark silhouettes of the trees called me to retreat into them, to run away from my dread and anticipation. My mother’s voice chided in my head.
“You mustn’t run from your fears, you must face them.”
“I know mother, I’m trying,” I whispered breathlessly.
The majority of the night was spent in festivities. The ground nearly quaking under our feet as we rejoiced to my newfound position. The only person who was not celebrating was Mother Ethel, who was rarely seen out of her tent. She usually avoided crowds, and spent most of her time locked away, only seen when counseling.
They say that Mother Ethel had once been a hunter, but a tragic accident had forced her to withdraw back, becoming an adviser. And at that moment she was just what I needed. With a last glance at the banquet, I slipped quietly away to find her. Her tent was located on the edge of the village. One of the tribal members has bestowed a warm beaver skin shawl on me, which I wrapped tightly around my head, shielding myself from the bitter night wind. Tripping along blindly in the dark, I finally came to what looked like the last tent. Stumbling slightly as I did so, I opened the flap. The jewels strung from the ceiling rattled as I stepped inside.
A woman who was wrapped in a thick wool shawl beckoned to me.
“Hello, my dear,” she said, in a hoarse whisper.
I nodded politely and sat down at a goose feather pillow opposite from her. Mother Ethel pulled back her shawl, revealing a tired, withered face, a deep white scar on her cheek. Her leathery skin crinkling slightly as she smiled. “Tea?” She asked politely.
I nodded greedily as a young boy poured it into a clay cup. I grasped the warm handle tightly in my hand.
“Tell me your troubles.”
I took a sip of the jade- green liquid, which filled me with warmth and tranquility. I looked slowly around the room, and noticed that other young tribal members were scurrying about, straightening the pillows and cushions, and sweeping the mud floors.
I gestured my head towards them them, and Mother Ethel waved her hand dismissively.
“They are not permitted to speak of what they hear in this room,” she said.
I nodded, satisfied, and told her about my lies. She did not interrupt as I spoke, and only nodded on occasionally, observing me with her small intelligent eyes. When I finished, she pursed her thin lips.
“That was quite a falsehood,” she said.
“I know,” I admitted, dejectedly. “What should I do?”
“You must trust your conscience. It always leads you right. If you feel that you should continue with this lie, then do so, but keep in mind the chaos it may cause.”
However wrong it may be, my instincts told me to continue with the lie.
“I must continue with this,” I said. “It’s my role now.”
“If you feel this is wise, that that is what you must do.”
I paused and closed my eyes, pondering her words.
“I do.”
She nodded sadly. “Then my child, this is your path.”
I stood up, tilting my chin proudly in the air. After all, as my father had said, I must look the part.
I thanked her, and stepped once again into the icy night. The wind howled in my ears, and pulled at my hair and skin. I stepped forward, bathing myself in the silver light of the moon. The ground around me sparkled with an eerie glow. The trees rustled hauntingly in the harsh breeze.
I walked through the village until I came to my tent, the largest of all. It had been draped in colorful beads, a carpet of leaves and dried flowers scattered across the ground at the entrance. I pulled open the flap, and though it was still dark, I felt other forms of decorations around me. Trinkets and feathers and such. I could still hear the feast in the distance. My people yelling and stomping their feet to the rhythm of the drums. Surely, my absence would be noted, but I had to rest. Laying myself down on the thick bed of wool, I drifted off immediately into a deep, and troubled slumber.
The next morning I was awakened by my mother, her warm hand caressing my now disheveled hair.
“Tis your first day as leader, Naia. You mustn’t keep the people waiting.”
I rose, still dazed from the long night. She took my arm, gently steering me towards the meeting grounds. Staring curiously at my surroundings, I noticed how different the weather was today from the previous evening. Instead of bitter and cold, it was warm and comforting. Almost liked being wrapped in an embrace. Bijou-like sunlight gleamed through the trees, glistening on the earth around me. My tribe was gathered around a mound of jewels. Every day, we would sacrifice something dear to us and put it in a pile. It didn’t have to be a prized possession, just something that was meaningful or special. Which we would later burn as a sacrifice to the gods. Today, I noticed that the pile was higher than ever before. Items more important than I had ever seen thrown into it. Rare germs, and bracelets and necklaces strung with large beads. People must have been feeling especially grateful that day, being as I had just been appointed chief. I pulled one of the many jewels from my hair and thrust it into it. Watching the amber speck as it soared to the top.
“You will sit here, my daughter,” my father’s low voice commanded.
From my limited experience at the tribal meetings, I had learned that the chief sits on the highest of the logs, so, I placed myself there. My sister, Annika, was to my right. She bit her lip as I sat down to contain a scowl. It was clear that she had been hoping for my role. She certainly had the look of a leader. With her long, wavy black hair always pulled in a careful plait. And her divine clothing. Her never changing regal posture, and her sharp angular chin, always pointed high in the air. But, appearances were deceiving. My sister had had a wild side, one that was very hard to control.
My younger brother, Malachi, was seated on my left. He was very much like my father. Always calm, always rational. With a strong and sturdy build to match his attitude. He smiled soothingly at me and nodded briskly in my direction. I cleared my throat.
“What are your concerns?” I asked, gesturing delicately to each council member.
A woman next to Annika, who I recognized as Liliana, a gatherer spoke.
“The water has been scarce lately, and the crops have been withering.”
I furrowed my brow in concentration, considering the problem.
“Then you must plant seeds at a new location,” I said, scanning the area with my eyes. “There.” I said, gesturing to a distant valley.
Malachi nodded approvingly. My mother raised her arm from the back.
“Chief,” she exclaimed, grinning slightly at how she now addressed me.
“There has been a recent beetle infestation on the corn.”
“We could spread vinegar on the infested plants,” I suggested slowly.
Annika scowled again. She clearly didn’t like my progression.
When the meeting had adjourned, I felt a warm hand brush over my shoulder.
“You are doing well,” my mother stated adoringly.
A fresh pang of guilt stabbed at my stomach, and I forced a grateful smile.
“I’m proud of you,” she said, as she walked gracefully away, her dress flowing like water in the sunlight. I reluctantly followed suit, attempting to mimic her walk, how she radiated power with each step she took. She was so authoritative, so inspiring. It was almost impossible to believe I was her daughter. Though she had stepped down as a ruler, people still parted as she walked, staring after her.
When we had reached the hunting grounds, my mother slung a large wooden bow over my shoulder.
“Remember, Naia, you lead the hunt now.” she said, allowing me to trudge past her to the front of the group.
I cleared my throat, as she had often done, and raised my voice.
“Half of the group will hunt on the right, the other half on the left. I expect twelve kills from each side. Disperse!” I said, doing my best to speak in a commanding tone.
The hunters did as I asked, and I went off to hunt on my own. I walked for longer than I had expected, passing swaths of tall grass and large rocky caves. I had expected that more animals would be in these places, but everything was empty. I had nearly given up hope, when I spotted a cocoon of dense vegetation in a nearby meadow. I slinked quietly behind it, hoping that something comes along. And unsurprisingly, that didn’t take long. A tall, nimble doe waltzed gracefully across the rich soil. She had a sight limp, so I liked to think that by doing this I was putting her out of her misery. A small part of me knew that I was mostly grateful for her inconvenience because I wouldn’t have to run very far to catch her, if she tried to get away. I was so famished that I didn’t think I could walk even a step if I tried. She turned in my direction, and I got a clear shot. I drew the string back, and the arrow hit her precisely where I had angled it, right at her stomach. I drew back, immensely satisfied with myself. I plowed over to her and stared into her now lifeless face, the light drained from her closed eyes. I knelt and lay my hands over her warm pelt, reciting a silent prayer of thanks. Once I had finished, I took hold of her thin leg, and dragged her along behind me. When I had reached the border of the woods, my tribe was waiting for me. All huddled together in small groups. They applauded admirably when I held up the doe. It would be a feast that night. Their smiling faces faded to grim expressions, as my father tore through the crowd. His eyes wild with furry.
“Naia, you must see this! Come chief!”
He bolted away, and I chased after him, my people behind me. We arrived at a tent and he pulled it open, revealing something truly horrifying. My heart leapt in my chest as I stared disbelieving in it’s direction. There was no denying it: my life would never be the same again. The hearth was gone.

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