tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 08

Demon Child Ch. 08

byXantu©

Chapter 8: A new name and a new ha'akh.

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Neekah felt the first flow of her woman's blood as she translated his words to the grasslands leader. A wave of embarrassment and fear flooded over her. Kwal'kek's words that it was not the Bak way to isolate a woman at this time did little to assuage her sense of being unclean. Even if it may be the Bak way, she was certain that the grasslands people would not share that opinion. A woman who broke this taboo could be punished, even killed if it was determined that she had brought bad luck to a tribe. Many times she had witnessed as Kharthmah had performed purification rituals to cleanse a contamination caused by a woman's blood. Almost all these rituals had involved inflicting a great deal of pain upon the woman who had caused this to happen. Even though she was never welcome in the women's hut, she had always kept herself carefully apart from the village during her moon times.

Neekah squirmed in fear that her condition would be discovered and she could feel her face heat. Finally unable to contain herself anymore she pulled impatiently at the Khan's arm and whispered frantically in his ear. "My Khan, this girl is unclean. This ha'akh must go to the women's hut."

Jhardron looked at her, his confusion clear in his eyes. Again she tried to say the embarrassing words, "It is forbidden among these people for a woman to speak to a man, to freely walk about the camp at this time. I must go be apart."

This time understanding lit up Jhardron's eyes. "You say that you fear offending the customs of this tribe? That you suffer Jha'Mak'Tah's wound?"

Neekah blinked and looked puzzled and then remembered the story of Pan'Shash'Sha'Am challenging Jha'Mak'Tah to do battle with the spear between his legs. She suppressed a smile at the euphemism. "Yes, I have been vanquished and I must hide away. It is the way of my people to stay apart. I cannot wander the village now."

Jhardron frowned at this inconvenience, but he could see that the ha'akh was clearly distressed. She seemed genuinely fearful of breaking some taboo of this grasslands tribe. The last thing he wanted to do was upset the carefully balanced peace of the northern territories. The Aga Khan had been clear in his wishes that the grasslands people be left alive if at all possible. "If it is the custom of these people then you must follow that custom."

Neekah looked relieved and hurried to a woman and whispered furtively. The woman pointed away south. She returned, "The women's hut is south of the village, near the little stream. I will be there." She turned and almost ran from the village.

The hut was actually a small tent made up of skins and Neekah looked cautiously inside. There was only one mature woman sitting inside. She looked up from spinning thread with a little bobbin and looked surprised to see a stranger. Then she stared at Neekah, "You are the demon that came with the warriors. My sister-in-law was full of the news of the demon who was the daughter of Sa'amdi."

Neekah nodded shyly, "Yes, I suffer my woman's blood and my Khan has allowed me to come here."

"I could use some company. The bleeding time is past for the other women. My name is Tollarra."

Neekah nodded, it was common in a small village for the moon blood of the women to all fall near the same time. She looked curiously at the spinning bobbins and asked, "My name is Neekah. Is there a task I can assist you with?"

Tollarra looked at her and frowned, 'neekah' meant 'dirty thing' in both the Ramaldi and Grasslands languages. She had never met anyone whose name was that before. "Why do you name yourself that? It is an insult thrown at the most miserable of things."

"It is the only name I have known. The people of my village called me that. The warriors call me ha'akh, which means servant."

Tollarra picked up a bobbin and handed it to Neekah, but the girl just looked at it in confusion. "Don't you know how to spin?"

Neekah shook her head. "I saw the women of my village spin, but I never tried it. The witch doctor did not have need of spinning."

Tollarra shook her head in consternation at the idea of a grown woman who had not learned the simplest task taught to girls almost as soon as they could hold the bobbin. "Here let me show you. But I will not call you that insult name. I will call you ha'akh. Being a servant is a worthy task for a woman. How do you serve the warriors?"

"I help with camp chores; cooking, cleaning, and filling the water buckets. I share the blessings of the goddess with them each night."

Tollarra laughed, "Ah yes, so they are men after all. We grasslands women name it something else but it is the same across the land." The Grass Walker woman nodded knowingly, "I have heard how the Bak warriors carry off women to serve them in this way. Is it a hard life?"

Neekah shook her head vigorously, "All my life I was alone and felt nothing but hate in the hearts of the Ramaldi. The Twisted Dagger have welcomed me into their regiment. They value what I have to give. They value me."

"I wish I had a husband or even a man to value what I have to give. All I am blessed with is work. I live at the hearth of my dead husband's brother. But he does not care for me. He has taken me to his hearth as a family duty. I am just an old auntie to their children." It was obvious that Tollarra was lonely and very talkative.

Neekah sensed a carefully guarded sea of sadness filling Tollarra. She was no longer young, her body thickened and her face weathered by the constant wind of the plains. "You have no children of your first hearth?"

Tollarra's constant smile wavered and then slipped from her face. "I carried a child beneath my heart once, but it was not to be." She looked down at the bobbin in her hands and resumed spinning. "My first husband was old. He had many children from his first wives. He told me that it was of little matter to him that I could not carry the baby. He said he had paid my bride price to warm his bed, not to rock a cradle."

Neekah knew that the women of the grasslands rarely had a say in who their husband would be and that it was not uncommon for a marriage to be a pragmatic arrangement between tribes and families. A woman could refuse, or even could leave a husband who was abusive, but a woman without a husband or family had little status. "Don't you have any other family here?"

"I was young when I was married to the Grass Walker tribe. I came from the Bitter Grass Eater tribe to the west. I still have uncles and cousins there, but it is rare that anyone travels across the empty Wind Singer lands anymore."

Tollarra forced herself to smile, "But what is, is what will be. It is not an old woman's place to dream, that is for young women like you." She gently corrected Neekah's clumsy attempt to spin and asked, "Did your woman's blood just start today?"

Neekah nodded, her brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to make the little stone weight spin and twist the wool fibers into a lumpy bit of string. "Yes, just today."

"Then you will be here for a few days. Good, I miss someone to listen to my busy tongue."

Neekah shook her head, "When the warriors leave in the morning they will take me with them. I must go when they come for me."

Tollarra looked puzzled, "But you are unclean."

Neekah shook her head, "It is not the warrior way to wait for a ha'akh. Kwal'kek says I must keep myself clean and refrain from sharing blessings until it is over."

Tollarra looked around the tiny shelter and sighed, "I wish I could go. There seems nothing for me here."

It was late in the day when a small dark woman poked her head into the tent. Her words were terse, "Tollarra, I bring your meal." The woman's voice was sharp and tired.

Tollarra flinched and quickly responded, "Thank you, sister."

"You have been over long in the women's hut. I am beginning to think you are hiding in here to avoid your obligations."

Tollarra looked uncomfortable, but did not speak back. She just dropped her head. The small dark woman looked around the tent and for the first time seemed to notice Neekah sitting motionless in the shadows. Her manner changed from acid, irritability to cautious curiosity. "Hello."

Neekah nodded, "Greetings."

The woman was staring at Neekah, her eyes measuring and curious. "You are the one that speaks for the warriors, the one that names herself the child of Sa'amdi and a demon."

"I am."

"What is your name?"

Before Neekah could answer, Tollarra interrupted, "She is called ha'akh by her masters."

Neekah looked at Tollarra and did not contradict her. Tollarra continued, her voice hurried and overly loud, "This is my sister-in-law, Nahalem." Tollarra began to prattle, "I don't know why my bleeding lasts so long this time. I am sure it will be over tomorrow." She picked up the bowl, "Sister, you brought me meat. It must be a special day in the village."

The small woman looked distracted, "Yes, the warriors brought a gift of meat to the village. There was enough for all. I must go back and watch the children." She backed out of the tent.

Neekah could sense Tollarra's relief as her sister-in-law walked away. "That one has a tongue like a viper. She can cut flesh with it." Tollarra gave a sly smile, "She is right to think that I hide in the women's tent over long. It is dull here, but at least I can find a moment's peace."

Neekah suppressed a sympathetic smile, "Tollarra, is my name that much of a bad thing?"

"It is not a name. It is an insult."

Neekah thought about that as she fought with the bobbin. Kharthmah had never called her by that name. He had just referred to her as 'demon'. She had no memory of her mother ever calling her by any name. The only people she had ever heard call her by that name had been the people of the village. She had very clear memories of the boys who had raped her, taunting her with that name as they forced themselves on her. She wondered why she had ever thought of that as her name. She dropped the bobbin and sat staring at her hands. "I really was dirty you know. I never washed. The dirt hid the unnatural color of my skin."

"Well you are not dirty now and you need to find a new name."

Neekah looked up and shook her head, "I do not need a name. I am ha'akh Bak Tai Twisted Dagger. That is all I need."

Almost as she said the words she heard the voice of Tim'kah calling for her. She stepped out of the tent and answered, "I am here."

Tim'kah looked curiously into the tent, "Kwal'kek says for you to come back to the wagons."

She turned to Tollarra and shrugged apologetically, "If they call, I must go."

Tollarra laughed bitterly, "You have a better life than mine, ha'akh."

At the wagon she looked curiously at a small tent standing alone. Kwal'kek pointed at it proudly, "Ha'akh, Jhardron has traded for a tent of your own. If you must stay apart from the mud people, he says you should remain here in our camp."

She looked inside and smiled to see her sleeping mat with the leopard fur. Her voice was almost inaudible, "Thank you."

Kwal'kek blustered, "Do not thank me. Thank your Khan. Now that you have a tent of your own, you must be responsible to take it down and put it into the wagon. We will be leaving early in the morning, be ready." As he moved away he threw back over his shoulder, "It is a good thing for you to have your own tent. It was crowded enough in my tent with all the supplies."

She stayed close to her tent all afternoon, eating alone and walking to the latrine pit alone. She washed herself in a bucket and washed the rags that she wore between her legs. She found her eyes following the forms of the warriors as they moved about the camp. As the shadows grew long in the evening, most of the warriors left the wagons and she could hear the sounds of laughter and music from the village. There were only a few of the younger warriors who remained with the wagons and the staked horses.

She slept poorly and woke early. She carefully folded her tent around her sleeping furs and loaded it next to Kwal'kek's in the wagon. She huddled close to Xin'sha's warm side to keep warm in the early morning chill. As the goose bumps stood out on her bare arms, she told herself that soon the sun would be high and hot and she would be thinking wistfully of this cool air then.

As Kwal'kek and the younger warriors were loading the last of the cooking pots and things into the wagon, Tollarra trotted into the camp, carrying a small bundle clutched in her arms. She looked fearfully around the camp and seeing the ha'akh standing to one side leaning against her red mare, she rushed up and stood uncertainly next to her. Tollarra had a fresh bruise on her face, her eye promising to turn black and she was tenderly licking at a swollen lip. Her voice vibrated with tension, "Ask if I can come too."

Neekah looked at Tollarra in confusion, "You wish to come with the warriors?"

"I have no home here now. Nahalem was not pleased with me last night. She had to stay with her baby because I was still in the woman's tent. She struck me when I returned to the hearth, accusing me of deliberately making her miss the feast. Her tongue is evil enough; I refuse to be beaten like a dog. I will work hard. I want to be a ha'akh like you."

Kwal'kek was standing close looking at the small grasslands woman in consternation, when he growled, demanding an explanation, Neekah spoke, "This grasslands woman asks to become a ha'akh. She has no husband."

The old warrior looked at the slender young ha'akh and the stout shorter grassland woman and shook his head in confusion. He threw his hands up and marched away, muttering that he was wondering what was wrong with this world. "This is a decision for the Khan to make."

Jhardron blinked at Kwal'kek's words and frowned at the distraction. He handed the reins of his gray stallion to Tim'kah and strode over to where the ha'akh stood. "This woman asks to become a ha'akh?"

Neekah nodded, "Yes, my Khan."

"Is she permitted to leave her tribe?"

"She has no husband or children. She is allowed to make that decision. A grasslands woman can decide to leave a hearth if she chooses."

Jhardron looked critically at the little woman standing gripping a small bundle of personal items. It was not unheard of for a woman to volunteer to join a regiment as a servant, but usually they did not last long. Yet he was aware that the single ha'akh they had was not enough to keep the men happy. A second woman to share the chores and to serve the regiment would be helpful. He spoke briskly, "A ha'akh is a slave taken in battle." He reached out and grasped the younger woman's arm and pointed at the freshly healed brand. "This ha'akh belongs to the Twisted Dagger and must obey all Twisted Dagger warriors from the lowest to the highest in all things."

Neekah translated the words to Tollarra and Tollarra stammered out, "I am a good worker. I promise to obey."

"Once you carry the brand on your arm you will not be permitted to make the decision to leave our service. The only way a ha'akh leaves the service of a regiment is by death."

Neekah blinked and swallowed and the repeated the words to Tollarra. The older woman looked frightened and then looked back towards the village. She looked at Neekah, "Do they beat you? Are they cruel?"

Neekah shook her head, "No."

"Then I will do it." The little woman tried to keep the fear from her voice, "Tell him that I will do it."

Jhardron pointed at the wagon. "Ride there." He turned to Neekah, "You must help her learn the Bak language and her duties. She will sleep in your tent with you."

When Neekah turned to Tollarra, her eyes were sparkling with excitement. "He says yes. Get on the wagon. I will ride close by."

As the wagons began to roll away from the village Nahalem ran out and screeched at Tollarra, "Where do you think you are going?" As she ran, the infant she carried in her arms began to wail.

Tollarra called out, "I am leaving. I have decided if I am going to be treated like a slave, I will at least do it somewhere far from you and your sharp tongue." Tollarra deliberately turned and faced forward on the wagon, turning her back on the shrill angry woman.

A man came to stand behind Nahalem. He grabbed her arm and tried to pull her back, but the angry woman jerked her arm free and then turned on him, her face filled with rage and frustration. Tollarra shook her head, "That is my brother-in-law. Without me to vent her bile upon she will turn upon him or the children. I do not envy him."

Kwal'kek had tied the lead of Xin'sha to the wagon. Tollarra was unusually quiet for several hours as they traveled west. Neekah could sense her feelings of fear and sadness, but chose to leave her to her thoughts. At one point Jhu'kresh rode up and looked curiously at the woman perched high on the wagon. "Our Khan wishes to ask if this woman is familiar with this territory. The speaker of the grasslands spoke of a spring to the west, but without a translator it was not clear exactly where."

Neekah spoke softly to Tollarra and the little woman rubbed her eyes and looked around. She pointed a little to the north, "There is a little spring that way, but it is far yet." Neekah looked at the featureless waves of grass and wondered how anyone could find their way, but relayed her words to Jhu'kresh.

After that Tollarra began to talk more. "Who was that?"

"That was Jhu'kresh. He is second in command to the Khan."

"They look all the same to me. They are all so tall and dark," Tollarra looked shyly at her hands, "...and handsome." She whispered nervously, "It has been many seasons since I have lain with a man."

Neekah could sense that Tollarra was seething with curiosity and that her fears did not extend to this possible use. She laughed, "You will not have to wait much longer. Like you said earlier, they are men after all."

Tollarra's next words were filled with fear, "They branded you?" It was common for a member to carry some mark of their tribe and status and it was common for the scarification to be a painful ritual. Grassland males wore extensive tattoos, but the women had only small series of dots along their hairline.

Neekah held out her arm, proudly displaying her scar. "Yes, but it was over quickly. All Twisted Dagger carry the scar, from the Khan to the lowest ha'akh. It is an honor to carry the mark upon my arm. A Twisted Dagger does not fear pain." Neekah's voice turned soft, "We have not come so far that you could not walk back. It is not too late to change your mind."

Tollarra shook her head and made a sour face, "I am sure the pain of a single brand to be small in comparison to the endless lash of my sister-in-law's tongue. She crossed a line when she struck my face. I could tolerate the pinches, the hair pulls, even the thrown objects, but when she struck my face I knew it would be only a matter of time before I struck her back. I would have no hearth then and at least now I get to do something I have dreamed of since I married. I get to travel west to the lands of my childhood. Perhaps I will see my family." The small woman smiled bravely, "You have so much pride in your voice when you say that. Say those words, 'Twisted Dagger.' I have not felt pride of place for many years."

Neekah smiled, "It is the only place I have felt valued. They are proud that I am a demon. They say that I am lucky."

"What is the Bak word for luck?"

"Aylan."

"Then you should name yourself Aylanna."

Neekah's voice was soft and confused, "I can name myself?"

"It is a good name. It has a beautiful sound. It is a name I would be proud to call you. I want to think that meeting you brought me luck."

Neekah said the name, "Aylanna, lucky one." Then she smiled, "Tollarra, you bring me a great gift, a new name." She sat a little taller in the saddle and turned to look back, almost expecting to see something left behind, lying in the grass.

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