Kerim crouched in the locked cage in the master’s hut. She had been stripped bare and left alone for two days. Her body ached from the cramped conditions and the blood on her feet and fingers was still fresh.
The conversations she had heard from the villagers, played over in her mind. The small openings in the hut were covered with old, stiff animal hide which blocked the light but failed to keep out the cold and the voices. It seemed the entire village, except her own household and one other, were caught in the master’s sticky web.
Knowing what would happen was worse than she could have imagined. She had to escape. Hour after hour she had kicked, pushed and picked at the bars. The burns on her hand were inseparable now from the other pains. Her body ached and trembled.
In the beginning the differences the master bought were subtle, but now the contrast to life in the village was startling. Recent life for Kerim had changed dramatically. Her herd had become small, so small that she had been forced to trade the wide, lush pasture for food. The few sheep remained in the pen close to her father’s hut for their own safe keeping. Her father had also become increasingly tired and withdrawn, often refusing to eat the meagre meals she had prepared. Her brother now lived at the far side of the village near his master.
She had woken to the sound of her own screaming in the hours before dawn. Tears flowed down her dirty cheeks as she remembered how she had once rushed outside with a blanket wrapped round her. Now she was unsure if she cried out of grief or fear. Her only friend, Miriam, had been dragged by her hair down the track by the frenzied mob of villagers. The image was still very clear in her mind. There must have been twenty around her, declaring obscene things that should never be said about one she loved. Kerim’s father had appeared at her side and grabbed her about her waist before she could run down the track after her friend.
‘You can do nothing. They will kill you too. Please Kerim,’ he had whispered urging her inside. ‘Hide.’
She had never seen her father look so weak and fragile. But his grip, however, was strong, and would not let her go. And so she had seen her only friend disappear, the one who knew her best and who agreed that what was happening was utterly wrong. Guilt plagued her. She had done so little to save her friend and now her error was being repaid.
Her father had kept her hidden ever since. And when she asked what had become of Miriam, he would not say. But Kerim knew; she had overheard the gossip. It seemed that the villagers were now at ease with the events. She shuddered to think of where the sheep had gone. Had they all been ritually killed too? She retched at the thought of what happened to Miriam. The god of the mountain had taken those she loved. The whole village had taken some part in the evil the stranger had brought.
Kerim had not reacted well to her father’s protection. She had been used to the cloud filled expanse of sky as her ceiling, and the wide open space. Each day, confined in her home bought further trouble. The walls of her hut had drained her of all energy and hope. The food had run low, but neither of them ate much. Kerim had been unable to imagine life outside the house; yet she had not anticipated the torment she was now subjected to.
What she first bitterly thought was her overprotective father, now gave her heart a sense of warmth. There had been no way of escaping his watchful eye. He gave her privacy only when she needed it. Kerim had used those moments to expel her frustration. She wept now with shame for the muttering against her father and her inner rage filled with angry words. There was now little light left in her world, compared to this present darkness.
Somehow she always knew it would come to this. The terrifying memories would soon flood her. She could not hold them back. As she closed her eyes she willed them to disappear. The noise reverberated in her mind as if it was really happening. She clutched at her ears to block out the sound. She heard the echoes of the chatter as the restless crowd formed in front of her father’s hut. And suddenly, she was there again, hiding in her home.
Kerim’s airways constricted as she focused on her brother. He and his hordes called to her father and burst through the blocked door. The wooden barrier burst off its hinges. Her father stood up, as the last line of defence. Outraged by his son’s intrusion, he demanded that they leave. Kerim looked at her brother’s vacant eyes. She no longer knew the man who stood before them. His warm smile was now replaced by a grimace; even his soft boyish features seemed hardened. There was an eager, hungry look in his eyes. She swallowed hard.
Any resemblance to the boy she had grown up with had vanished years ago. ‘What are you doing?’ Darius asked. ‘She is your sister.’
‘That means nothing,’ he said with malice. ‘Stand aside!’
Some others pushed their way inside. She could see the crowd forming outside.
‘I will not. What you are doing is wrong. This is all wrong. Please turn from this evil that has consumed you.’
The broad body of her brother threw her frail father to the floor and cackling, he snatched at Kerim. She dodged his hand and grasped the hot pan from the grate over the fire. She flung it at her brother, but it dropped to the floor in front of his booted feet.
He laughed at her attempt and bent down to try the stew she had been cooking. With an evil grin he lunged forward. She stared wildly.
Her blistered hands stung now as they clung to her ears as if to double the pain. She pulled them away and hugged her body. She found no comfort. The images wouldn’t stop.
Her brother grabbed her arm, and pulled her forcibly from the hut. She dug her heels into the ground, desperate to be left alone. Her traitor brother’s fingers burrowed into her soft flesh. Her strength outmatched, he presented her to the waiting crowd who cheered.
Kerim continued to struggle, but her brother’s grip was firm and vicious. He was leading her to the centre of the village.
There, perched on a large woollen rug decorated with gaudy, bright woven stripes, sat the master— a pale man adorned in a dark robe. He welcomed Kerim by flashing his row of pitted decaying teeth. Behind her, Darius appeared.
‘You can’t take her,’ he shouted staggering up the lane. ‘You can’t take my daughter.’
‘But we have.’ The master grinned. He reached out to fondle her hair.
Kerim cried at his touch. ‘Dad! Help me!’
‘This is wrong, it is evil.’
The crowd mocked and started to move away to prepare for the festivities.
‘Please, my daughter!’ He ran after them shouting and pleading. ‘How can you depart so far from the truth? Please!’
A woman turned from the back of the crowd and struck Darius in the face knocking him to the ground, blood gushed from his nose. Her strength was unnatural. She spit upon the man and waddled around him.
‘Dad!’ Kerim cried. ‘Save yourself, get out of this place.’
The images disappeared.
She dare not look at her shameful wounds on her arms, inflicted by herself. She would not even be given the dignity to end it here by her own means. She had no tools, but her fingers, and what remained of her blunt nails. She had ripped off the surface layer of skin when she gnawed at her wrists.
It was then, when she was at her lowest that she prayed. Her words were silent. A cry from her broken heart.
You have been heard.
She pushed back the horrendous images of what might come. The festivities, the celebration, the sheer evil. She would not be sacrificed for evil. Would it be the knife or the flames that would finally end it all? She would not give up; she could not give up; she had to escape.
He suddenly appeared, silhouetted in the doorway. He strolled towards the cage with a white silk dress in his clawed hand and a bowl of stale bread and water in the other. The fabric as pale as his skin, draped loosely from his outstretched fingers. ‘Put this on!’ he demanded as he forced his hand through the bars. ‘The time is nearly here.’
He brushed his long fingers against her thigh. She shuddered at the filthiness of his touch. Her heart burned with anger. She pulled away as much as the cage would allow, and spat on her leg scrubbing at the place he had touched. His eyes shifted from her body to her wrists. He laughed as he fingered his grotesque necklace, ‘I see you have been busy.’
Kerim’s green eyes were heavy with exhaustion. Slowly they closed, even as she battled to stare at the landscape over which she had travelled—A landscape that was both thrilling and frightening. A landscape she thought she would never see again.
Mist swirled about the rocky ground and curled up her tattered dress which was damp from sweat and stained with sand and crushed plants. Burrs had snagged and branches had caught and torn the fine fabric.
Crawling behind a clump of bushes, hidden from the outside world, Kerim fell fast asleep, though her rest was fitful.
Hiding had been all she had done since her escape. It filled her waking and sleeping moments. Even now her bloodied fingers twitched and pulled at the nearby undergrowth.
It was a dreamlike memory. She had got out of the cage. Had someone feed her? Her intellect said no, but then how had the lock opened?
She traveled down the path and through the centre of the village all without being seen. How was that possible? Maybe this was her dream, her escape and freedom, but her aches told her it was true.
The villager knew who she was and yet this dream told her she walked calmly down the busy dirt path without anyone bidding her attention. Furthermore, she remembered her last meal, a meagre piece of stale bread and unclean water, but she was not hungry or faint.
She had accepted the fact that she blocked the events of the last few days from her memory. There was one thing that she knew for certain; she needed to find safety.
The screech of a distant animal startled her. Her drawn eyes flickered wide in fear, and she was on her feet. Chill ran through her veins, what little hope she had gained, she clung to. Her body, aching from trauma, and weary from real sleep, must react to her mind, it had to obey. But she had been set free, by some miracle, and now she was running. She ran on into the night and in a matter of seconds was gone.
I follow with a white streak of light, the exact path she made.
I will leave her momentarily to view her history and her destiny.
In a moment I arrive on the slopes of the mountain.
Gazing to the bottom of the valley, I can see the small specs of light flickering, marking the community of which Kerim was once a part.
I turn and watch as a tall, pale man steps from the shadows of a large tree pulling his sheepskin bag from his shoulder. He is the master. He rummages inside the satchel and pulls out a folded and dried palm leaf. His bony fingers open the packet and grasp a small handful of sweet smelling herbs.
‘Carefully you imbecile!’ he commands.
‘Yes master.’ A short man bows as he lays another flat stone atop a substantial pile.
‘It must be ready by daybreak. And it needs to be perfect or you will ruin it.’
‘How many more slabs master?’
‘There are enough to keep you busy for another half an hour. Now stop jabbering and get on with it. It needs dedicating tonight.’
The night that had been lit gently through the clouded sky, and the fragrant fire alongside the tree, suddenly becomes heavy. The darkness itself is swallowed by a deeper realm of night. The servant peers about, looking for a shadow that has darkened the sky, but there is nothing. Instead, all he can see is the sleek form of his master standing still, as if captured in a trance. Then quite suddenly, the tall pale man begins to chant, scattering the herbs over the stone mound that has been built.
But I see them, numerous dark, scaly bodies, restless in the tree. The darkness is where they feel the most comfortable.
The largest creature climbs on the man’s back and clings to his shoulders. It whispers the words of the chant and the man repeats. The words are unworldly and they summon the deeper darkness.
The squat man stands back and watches. He knows he has to wait until the chant is finished before the last stones will be laid, but he is not complaining, he is grateful for the rest. Building the mound has taken two days, and he has not been alone. It is only at these times, when his master is so consumed in his acts that he has felt the brief relief, but he is not alone, even now. Above him, plumes of smoke continue to rise into the night air. He watches the shrouded moonlight captured in the swirling forms. There is only a little rest for Ishmillimech.
I have seen enough of her history to know that she is safe for a while. But what of her future? Has my friend been as unhindered as myself?
I concentrate and watch the vision he sends from some distance away.
The buzz of noise spreads through the thick earthen walls and into the night. Raucous laughter ripples through the building. The joke is on an inhabitant and his family that lives on the outskirts on the hill above the village. This is the place of Kerim’s destiny.
The meeting house is the place to be for the village community in the evenings and early hours.
The fire smokes in the centre of the round mud building. Men and women perch on benches or lounge on the floor. A large man has caught the attention of the smoke encased audience. His long black hair that is bunched in a ponytail runs half the length of his back. His presence is superior to the majority not only in his bulk, but also his stagger. His choice of subject of ridicule is a favourite among the crowd. He thrives in the cheers of agreement and swells in the appreciation of his jibes.
‘The arrogance of that man is a joke!’ he continues his speech, his black beard ruffling and small eyes twinkling. The smoke does not hide the acidic green atmosphere that he weaves with his words and actions. He takes a swig from his cup, as others agree. The brown liquid overflows, and runs through the bristles, dripping from his chin, and down his woven tunic. ‘The fact that he wants me, Tarlin, leader of this hamlet, to convince any of you to take what he says seriously makes me laugh. I’d rather jump into this fire here, and perform a dance on the hot coals!’ He makes to leap into the flames, but instead performs a little jig on the spot. A great howl of laughter flows into the air as he is joined by one of the many women he calls his wives. She is young, much younger than him, and her beauty staggers the watchful human. Her dark hair flows as she prances about her husband provocatively; her gaze fixes him in a sensual stare. The outbreak of dancing stirs others to bang out a rhythm. Other women get up and dance about him, as he hops from one foot to the other with a fake pained expression on his face. ‘Oh it’s hot! Oh it’s hot!’ he sings out. Others begin to get to their feet and take part; it does not take long for the whole of the room to join in. Some dance; some make music, while others mock at the expense of the fool that they will not listen to.
My friend stands guard over the watchful human who is hooded and sat by the entrance. He is hidden by the drying racks of vegetation, listening carefully and watching the events unfold. He gets to his feet and leaves the unpleasant atmosphere. He has seen enough. The fresh air of the outside fills his lungs with clean breath, the cool night acting as a strong decontaminator. Pulling the woollen jacket tighter around his shoulders, he lets the hood fall down, no one will see him but us, they are all inside enjoying the mockery of his family. He moves quietly through the large cluster of huts and pens that make up the village, that are lit with a few oil lamps or open fires. What he has seen has disturbed him. His colours swirl about him energetically.
‘Thank you for showing me what she was like and saving me from her,’ he offers as a prayer. I smile as he lifts his hand to his head and ruffles his hair. There is sorrow as the blue swirls of colour gently calm. ‘Help me to be patient,’ he sighs. ‘Well, I guess that’s the end of me trying to work it out. It’s over to you now!’
He moves into the darkness of the outskirts and heads for the hilltop.
I can feel that my friend is at ease. I will see him soon.
Beyond the ever increasing steam that issues from the mountain top, and the ceaseless blanketed sky, the lights in the heavens have been joined by another. Its light is not a single dot against the blackness. It is moving across constellations leaving a tail gas and dust that appears to be light behind it. A mass, sent on its long journey when time began, soon to reach its destination.
The sky was getting lighter through the thick cloud. Somehow the steam from the mountain did not look quite so threatening in daylight. Ishmillimech had watched the whole ceremony from the shelter of the tree. He so wanted to return to his bed but had not been given permission.
The embers in the fire had all but gone out and the morning had bought some relief from fear of the night. He sat on the only dry patch of ground, as the dew was heavier than usual, with his knees tucked to his chest. He had never seen his master so out of control as he was last night. This dedication had taken much longer than any other time, and it was the way in which the tall dark man had pounded the ground and flung himself into the wild dancing that had unsettled Ishmillimech the most. At each altar blessing, the dancing had been the most entertaining part of the whole ceremony for him to watch, but this time his stomach squirmed and his heart had beat too fast in fear.
‘Get up man. We return to the village to prepare the sacrifice.’
‘Yes master Bruja.’ Ishmillimech replied carefully.
‘What is it?’ Bruja questioned.
‘Are you not tired?’
‘Quite the contrary, Ishmillimech. I feel invigorated. Energised and rejuvenated.’ His thin lips spread, revealing his pointed blackened teeth. Bruja was tall and pale. He wore long black robes that dragged along the ground, soaking up the dew in his hem. From his neck dangled an ecliptic string of ornaments, teeth, and a hideous twisted claw. Ishmillimech had never seen such a sight.
Bruja’s own fingers were unconsciously drawn to touch the claw, as he stepped out ahead of Ishmillimech with an air of arrogance. He stroked the claw affectionately, walking down the well-trodden path. His confidence was unmistaken, unlike Ishmillimech who slipped and floundered falling several times.
Bruja caressed the claw with his long fingers. ‘This is going to be the best one yet! There will be much to gain from this and much to receive. I have waited long for this moment. It is not every day that one of such importance is given. There will be rewards beyond that which I have known. We must get the people ready. Make them ready!’
Ishmillimech felt a shudder travel down his spine. He remembered the innocent beginnings of it all. Everything had changed since then; subtle changes had become downright, poke-you-in-the-eye changes. It had been just a bit of fun, the odd sheep, snatched and sacrificed, here or there. The feasting afterwards had always been what had drawn him. Now things had changed, sacrifices were made more often to aid all sorts of decisions and to all manner of objects, but Ishmillimech had been convinced of the power these acts of worship had given Bruja.
He knew deep down that he and the village were now caught firmly in Bruja’s grasp. The ceremony now no longer took place in secret; anyone opposed to the rituals was ridiculed, cast off and neglected, and became unable to survive in the village. Ishmillimech had been there at the first and knew that he would be there at the last. Every time he had said to himself it would be the last, but each festival night, he was drawn out and sucked in by the atmosphere. He held to the excuse that he had no control, that his master had commanded him to take part. But deep inside, his heart was as dead as Bruja’s; he would never want another to take his role in the upcoming events.
And so, Ishmillimech followed his master down the mountain side. Now was the time to prepare the girl for sacrifice.
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