Iron spear tips brushed the bound captives’ necks. Battle scars still bleeding, they knelt in mud at their guardsmen’s feet. Most of Pempamsie village stood gawking at the captured slavers held just inside their walls.
The sight of the prisoners’ ragged armor and chains made Ralo’s stomach clench.
Slavers had attacked his people. What should he do?
Ralo shook his head, and long braids battered the air. He wiped sweat from his palms on his brown linen shirt and kilt. He left the crowd.
His sister trailed him, her bushy hair bouncing with each step. “How awful. What are we going to do with them?”
“I don’t know, Nyata,” Ralo replied, then the realization came. “We need a jail. We’ve never needed a jail before.”
Despite the afternoon sun overhead, Nyata shivered. “I don’t want to think about it.” Nyata poked him. “You didn’t have to carry that for me.”
Ralo grimaced at the sack of combs and oil jars in his hand. “I’ve got nothing better to do,” he muttered.
Ralo had only been named First Fire a month ago. Main Jye created the title for him to help connect him to the community, despite Ralo’s stigma. Ralo was tasked to use magic—ma’at—to help as needed, but his new leadership role remained unclear. He felt like a fish in the sky. What exactly should he do? So far the only defined responsibility was attending councils between Pempamsie’s chief—Main Jye—and the neighboring Mains.
“Well, there’s the council today,” Nyata reminded him.
Ralo cringed. At the last meeting, desperate to be helpful and show leadership, he had suggested the elders promote eating less meat out of kindness towards animals. They laughed until they fell over.
Nyata sighed and pulled on one of his plaits with a sardonic grin. Ralo snatched it away. All these years and her pulls still hurt. How could someone so skinny generate such power?
“No one likes a pitiful man,” Nyata lectured. Her grin became a smile. “I know you worry about your new role. You’ll figure it out. You just have to contribute to the community. Like me with braiding.” She brightened. “You should mention the prison idea at the council.”
“I… maybe…” he stuttered. Enemies had attacked. Helplessness ate at him like maggots on a corpse.
“Brother, you’re our Fire. If you burn weakly, how will we see in the darkness?”
As they strolled toward the braiding hut, passers-by whispered behind their hands and scowled. Hunters pointed spears and glares at them. An old man spat in their direction. Ralo bit his lip and suppressed the anger.
“Not everyone’s happy there’s a First Fire,” Ralo whispered.
Nyata nodded. “So few can use ma’at. And many hold to the old beliefs that ma’at is evil. But—”
The old spitting man moved to enter his hut but slipped while sidestepping chickens that roamed his path. Before the man’s body reached the grass, Ralo focused, eyes closed, fists clenched and body straining. Ma’at was unseeable, yet everywhere, like air. With great concentration Ralo’s mind could feel and touch the invisible power around him. With care he pushed a small amount of power toward the man, who was caught mid-air then placed on his feet. The man stared, then ran inside and slammed his hut’s wooden door. Witnesses pointed in wonder.
Nyata clasped Ralo’s shoulder. “Well done, First Fire.”
She kissed his cheek. Warmness spread in his chest. Despite her teasing, Nyata was the girl who raised him after their parents died. No foreboding or confusion could overpower his love for her.
His sweaty legs folded beneath him on the dense straw floor. Ralo listened from behind the row of Mains as the hunter spoke, though he had trouble focusing through his nervousness. The council terrified him, and the hunter, who was the same age as Ralo, gazed down at Ralo like he was a dog allowed to dine with people.
“Fortunately, I and a few other hunters were with Merchant Dakiembe’s caravan when the slavers ambushed it,” the hunter continued. Scars criss-crossed his bare chest and arms. “They circled us, but we overpowered them.”
Main Jye reached for his bowl of shea tea. It filled his hut with a wet flower fragrance. His spotted, wrinkled hands shook as they lifted the bowl. “This is the third time they’ve attacked us,” he noted between sips.
The other two Mains nodded at their elder’s words.
Main Jye asked, “These slavers, we know where their base is?”
The hunter bowed to acknowledge his elder. “Yes, Main Jye. They move constantly, but our trackers can find them if given a few days.”
The youngest Main, a man with grey locked hair, spoke. “They will see our food and people stolen until we are weak enough to be broken, then attack our village.”
The hunter bowed. The other two Mains nodded. Fear and coldness gripped Ralo, as if he’d been dipped into the Filindi River at night.
Main Jye crossed his arms. “Then we must go to war, or become slaves.”
The hunter bowed again. “Understood, Main Jye. I will not see my village enslaved.”
Ralo imagined Nyata in chains. Imagined the skinny girl who raised him enslaved for work and sex by foreigners like the prisoners. His coldness disappeared.
He decided how to be First Fire.
“I’ll go with the hunting party,” he announced.
They stared at him.
Then the hunter guffawed. “The plant lover fighting with hunters? How?”
Ralo tried to ignore the insult. “I have power. Ma’at orderers are rare. They’ll never expect warriors and an orderer.”
The hunter laughed, pointing at him as he would a dog trying to walk on its hind legs.
Ralo concentrated, straining to feel the ma’at around him. Unlike with the old man, this time he pushed hard. Ralo screamed. The hunter crashed against the wall, then fell unconscious onto the floor.
The Mains sat in shock as the room shuddered.
“I can help,” Ralo pleaded to Main Jye between gasps. “You gave me this title. Let me help my people.”
Main Jye glared at Ralo over his tea bowl. He sipped, then nodded.
Grateful for his newfound clarity, Ralo bowed. The fire inside him comforted his terror at the days ahead.
© 2014 by Alexander Monteagudo
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