Clovir: An Overture
Part IX: Babylon I
Wow, yet another three-part story! I will warn you, this one is a bit heavy. But there is hope - the story of Nimba does not end here. You will get the second part in An Atikan Interlude and the third in The Liserian Chronicles. I hope you enjoy this first installment!
“You are too headstrong, Nimba. You will get yourself killed, one of these days.”
Nimba stood rigid and silent near the wall of the hut. Light from the fire in the center hearth flickered and set shadows dancing. The sun had set quite some time before, plunging the village and the jungle that surrounded it into moon-lit darkness. Of course, Nimba knew the procession of the heavenly bodies very well, given her plans.
“I was only doing as I watched you do when I was younger, grandmother. I was setting the fish traps near dusk, got the idea, spoke to Master Libélula, and I thought that-“
“You heard what your father said!” bellowed the wrinkled woman perched on the chair near the fire. She was kneading and pounding dough as she spoke. “Some threat has come to our shores. It is not the other Tribes – we know how they act. We have not had a breach of the peace for centuries. There is something different, here. When the people of our Tribe disappear, there is no trace.”
“Ah, grandmother. Rino and Ellamby will return. They have simply gotten lost in the jungle, I am sure of it.”
“Only a fool is so sure of herself, Nimba,” said the young woman’s grandmother. “Do not try to go out there. We can secure the spider venom some other way. Master Libélula will not be without his reagents.”
“He said that he would train me, grandmother,” Nimba said quietly, breaking the stony gaze she had trained on the old woman. “He said that, if I did this for him, he would teach me the ways of the Seer. He would make me strong and give me many siddhis.”
The old woman made a scratching noise with her throat and spat on the dirt of the floor. “He did not say that, child. Or you misunderstood what he meant. He will not give you anything. Only you can realize your own power. If it is your dharma to become a Seer, so you shall become. If it is not, well, then you must live your life as it was meant to be. Only then can you be happy.” Nimba’s grandmother paused for a moment. “But that does not mean that I will permit you to leave this hut and pursue tarantulas in the dark!”
Nimba’s upper lip curved in response to her grandmother’s admonition. She walked over to the wood piled against one of the curved walls and grasped a stick. Wrapping it with a length of cloth woven from the fiber of the river reeds that grew near the village, the young woman dunked the torch into a wooden bucket filled with a viscous cerulean substance. Then she placed it in the fire, where it immediately caught, its flame burning an order of magnitude brighter than the one that saw it ignite. And it burned as blue as the sticky stuff that set it alight in the first place.
“Just try to stop me.”
Brave as she might have attempted to appear in front of the matriarch of her family, Nimba was utterly terrified to go out into the dark of the jungle. Her grandmother was right: Nimba’s father, the Chief of the Human Tribe of Atika, had warned her and everyone else that they would venture into the jungle only under pain of potential disappearance.
Nimba wanted to be able to say no to her dream, to simply give up on pursuing her desired mystical avocation under the tutelage of Master Libélula. It was a strange path and her father did not want her to become a mystic. She had even tried to abandon her heart, offering herself up to the potter to see if she would take Nimba under her wing and teach her the craft of clay. When the potter denied her, Nimba attempted to find herself a mate from among the men in the village. But they bored her. Besides, despite her incredible beauty, no one wanted the young woman. She was the Chief’s daughter, which made tangling with her dangerous. None of the men were brave enough to attempt to woo her.
So, that afternoon, she had finally mustered the courage to simply ask the man himself whether he would take her on as an apprentice. She knew she could trust her grandmother, a woman who had gathered reagents for the Seer before Libélula and the one before her, to keep this secret. But the old woman’s words of caution echoed in her head.
She pushed them aside. Nimba had made her decision, so here she was, seeking out tarantulas in the dark for the Seer of the Tribe, the enigmatic Master Libélula. Making her way gingerly along the thoroughfare out of the village and into the jungle, she nodded to the sentry posted in the small elevated hut that stood next to the path. He gave her a puzzled look, then, evidently remembering whose daughter she was, nodded back to her.
The sounds of the jungle, quite noticeable within the grounds of the village, seemed to grow more oppressive as Nimba walked along the familiar terrain. Her quarry would be out on the trees, Nimba knew, waiting to ambush their prey. The smaller ones, the ones that ate other spiders and centipedes – these were not the ones Nimba was after. She was after the enormous creatures, the beasts that ate mice and lizards. Most of them shed off their itchy hairs as a defence, but Nimba was not about to let a few moments of blistering agony stop her.
The first hour passed as if it were an eternity. The blue flame of the torch, ignited from the eternally burning magical goo that Master Libélula provided to all the families of the Tribe, cast its sapphire light along an endless number of empty tree trunks. Where were the tarantulas?
Perhaps it was not her destiny to become a Seer, Nimba mused. Maybe she was fated to fail at her task and take up some other trade and live her days quietly at the village as a spinster. She would not be the first uncoupled member of the Human Tribe, scraping her existence from some undesired business.
Mired in dark thoughts, the sight that broke Nimba from her reverie was one of triumph. A massive black and hairy arachnid was standing at alert on the side of the tree. Its abdomen was as big as a coconut and its legs were as thick as two of Nimba’s fingers put together. It was angled towards the scrubby bushes and grasses that grew in the area between the dirt of the path and the first trees of the forest itself. It must be waiting for its evening meal, Nimba decided.
With all the nimbleness that her name suggested, Nimba darted her hand out and grabbed the massive tarantula around its fat belly. Thankfully, it did not shed any of its hairs. Knowing that Master Libélula would want it alive, Nimba reached for the thick sack on her back.
The sack that she had forgotten back at the hut, caught up as she was in her haste to leave her grandmother.
“Gods-damn it!” Nimba shouted into the night air. This would not defeat her. She would return to the village with the spider held in her hand and prove to Master Libélula that she was-
“Look what we have here,” said a male voice, from somewhere behind the aspirant Seer. Except that Nimba did not understand what the voice said, as it was in the Erifracian tongue, and Nimba had never before heard such guttural noises from a human mouth.
Whirling, with one hand holding the tarantula and one hand holding the roaring torch, Nimba laid her eyes on a strange and terrifying sight. Three turbaned men with Erifracian scimitars hooked onto their belts and flaming yellow torches in their hands were standing on the path ahead of her. Their skin was much lighter than Nimba’s, and their dress was strange and baggy, a maelstrom of orange, yellow, and green. They had thick black moustaches and there was a disconcerting glint in their eyes.
“Another one of those blue torches, Ahmed.” said one of the men, portly and sweating. “And another girl for Ali – that should be it for this run,” Again, Nimba had no clue what he said, but she did understand the beckoning gesture and the way the each of the men’s hands descended to meet the hilt of their scimitars.
“Can you believe it?” said the thinner of the three men, the one with bulging eyes and a hooked nose. “Back to Tunuska already! And with such beauties. Yaruz bless us! I will have to taste of Ali’s stock on the voyage-“
“Enough, Rashid! I will not hear of disloyalty,” rumbled the mid-sized man as he pulled his scimitar from his sheath. He used the sword to beckon Nimba this time. He had a full black beard and his irises were just as dark, illuminated in the brilliant blue torch light.
Nimba, for all her worries, was not wanting for intelligence. The danger posed by the foreign barbarians was as clear to her as her own reflection in the bearded man’s scimitar. And here she was, bereft of any weapon besides the torch… and the tarantula in her other hand. Its legs were flailing wildly in the commotion, demonstrating its complete lack of faith that the situation would play out in its favour. It had begun to shed its hairs, but Nimba knew how to hold it to prevent it from striking her with its hellish payload.
As big as a small jungle cat, the tarantula. And its bite, without an antidote from Master Libélula, would be deadly within the matter of a day. Smiling, Nimba threw the creature at the advancing man, the one loyal to his master.
“Aieee!” The man’s screech pierced the jungle night air like a spear through the belly of a wild pig. Except there was no spear, and no pig – just an Erifracian alien nursing a bite wound from a massive tarantula and scratching himself furiously as his compatriots looked on dumbly at the poisonous carnage before them.
“Get her, you fools!” the wounded man said, squashing the tarantula beneath booted foot and trying to staunch the flow of blood from his opened belly. Given the heat and lack of any real resistance from the humans they had encountered, the Erifracians had decided to not wear their cuir d’arbalest as they went searching for their quarry. The victim of the tarantula immediately felt the regret of his decision to dress lightly, and this feeling was quickly followed by a series of convulsions as the neurotoxin from the dead spider’s mandibles began coursing up through his body and into his brain, which had become as a pool of fire.
Nimba could have lost the men, had she dropped her torch as she fled from them. But she could not do that. She knew the dangers of the jungle at night without a torch. It would have been suicide. If not another spider, a snake or a jaguar or some small insect with vicious poison would have spelled the end for her. Keeping it aloft was a decision, similar to the one the men had made about wearing their armour – one that the young woman would live to regret.
They caught her, of course, after running through several yards of jungle, when she tripped on a root, sending the blue torch careening tip-first into the moist soil to sputter its death. She had been looking back to see whether they were pursuing her. The thinner man with the hooked nose reached her first. Struggle as he might to get away, her feet were tangled in the tendrils from the massive tree that stood tall over her. Looking up with horror, she was not given much time to fully digest the sight of the grin on her pursuer’s face, white teeth brilliant in the dim light of his own torch. Then a fist descended upon her, pushing her down into the murk of unconsciousness.
“Nimba, wake up,” came a familiar voice, whispering through the haze of endless nightmares. “Nimba, you must wake up.”
Nimba’s first image as she opened her eyes was the face of her childhood friend, Rino. She soon realized something was off. His once-smooth features were mashed into a twisted visage, all puffed up and bleeding. He looked as though he had taken a severe beating, and that, coupled with the fear evident on what was left of his face, shocked Nimba back into reality.
“Rino,” she said, sitting up. “What happened to you?”
Nimba winced as she felt a jolt of pain from her own face, a bruised cheek from where the Erifracian marauder had landed his blow. It was not just a dream, then. Nimba looked around.
They were in a dark and cramped space, its walls curving up and around from a longitudinal center beam on the floor that proceeded towards a bisecting wall with a big door with a massive metal handle. Wooden ribs extended from the beam, joined by wooden slats, leaving the ground beneath the pair uneven. A small lantern hanging from the low ceiling beyond the small window near the top of the door was the only source of light, sending shadows skittering around the room. It swayed on account of a steady rhythmic motion that Nimba could feel through the floor beneath her.
“We are lost,” said Rino, spitting. “These men took me and Ellamby three days ago – I think. It was when we left the village to find somewhere… intimate, where we would not be disturbed. They came upon us, beat me and bound us, then took us back to the camp on the ocean. They had a big ship moored in a lagoon near the outskirts of Vanara land. We were put in a cage on the beach and left to cook in the sun.” Rino’s face hardened. “They gave us scraps of food not fit for dogs and forced us to use a single bucket as a toilet.” Rino waved his hand to the eight or so other people in the room with the pair. “Do you recognize them?”
Peering through the gloom, Nimba did recognize them. Eight other people of the Human Tribe, mostly adults who Nimba had little call to ever associate with. From her own villiage, there was Kula, the weaver, Ichu, the tailor, and Seela, the baker. She might have seen the others, people who lived at other villages, but their names she had forgotten. They were all looking at Nimba, eyes wide with terror.
“We must do something!” Nimba said. She tried to stand. And felt herself pulled back to the ground as she rose. Something held her hands fast. She looked down to see black iron manacles clamped around her wrists, attached by enormous chains to a massive iron spike in the floor. It was then that she noticed all of the others were similarly bound.
“There is nothing to do,” Rino said, his voice going soft. “We must forget about the village and the lives we had there. We have a new reality now. If we do not fight, we will not-“
“You coward,” said Nimba, cutting him off. “We will escape from this building and we will-“
“Ha, ‘building,’” replied Rino, returning the favour. He was genuinely amused. “You do not understand, do you? We are on the ship. On the ocean. We are surrounded by water. Even if we escape from here, I do not know how to sail. Do you? Do you know how to find your way back to Atika?”
“Our ancestors found their way to our homeland, you do not think that we could do it?”
“You were always so childish, Nimba,” sighed Rino. “Always thinking that the world is a much kinder place than it is.”
“And I was under the false impression that you are a courageous man, Rino,” Nimba pouted. Then she glanced at the quiet faces in the hold around her once more. “Where is Ellamby?”
Rino’s face dropped and he looked away. “When you were brought back to the camp, there were just two men carrying you. The third one – the one who did not return – he kept the other two from touching Ellamby and the other women while we were in the cage on the beach. With him gone, there is no one to stop them.” The quaking of Rino’s voice was clear as the sound of a cry of a jungle bird as he added, “She was taken.” He began to cry. “Steel yourself, Nimba, for it will be your turn soon.”
Nimba blinked at her stricken friend. He would not turn back towards her, no matter how much she touched his bare arm. She realized then that the man had been stripped to little more than a loin cloth, as had the other men and women. Nimba looked down at her own bare breasts, black skin glimmering as the light of the swaying lantern danced over them.
“Best not to resist, Nimba,” Rino said through his tears. “When they come for you, do not resist.”
The voyage was long, the food was scarce, and the prisoners were forced to subsist on thin gruel and stinking water. The horrors endured soon inured Nimba to the pain. There were other Erifracian men besides the two that had captured her, and not a single one of them had any qualms about taking what they wanted from the women. They forced all of them to drink bitter draughts every week, potions that made them sick. Nimba, having seen some of Master Libélula’s work with herbs personally, knew exactly what these guarded against. Some part of her was grateful for that. To be forced to carry one of these brute’s babies to term might have broken her.
But she did not break. And when the ship finally arrived in the port of Tunuska, she and the others were liberated from their manacles and prodded up into the hot sun of the alien city. The women were separated from the men, including Rino. Rino and Ellamby shouted their love to one another before a gloved fist silenced Rino and sent him reeling as he was marched down one of the crowded streets along with the other men.
Nimba, Ellamby, and the rest were taken in another direction, through a series of busy thoroughfares and side streets. Mean-looking guards, wearing strange scaled leather and more curved swords on their hips, were posted at regular intervals throughout the city. The people that they passed - brown-skinned, wearing clothing dyed in gaudy bright colours, and used to the spectacle of slaves being led to their masters - barely gave the women a second look.
When they arrived at their destination, Nimba’s eyes were drawn immediately to the inverted white pentagram painted beside the doorframe of the establishment, a doorframe from which a series of stringed beads hung in a row. A black snake had been painted upon it the pentagram, slithering down towards the ground. It was affixed to an enormous building made of polished black and white marble, with a series of columns peppering its exterior. There were curving arabesques painted along the edges of the eaves, and Nimba would have paused to examine its splendour if she had had more than a moment before she was roughly pushed inside by one of the men.
Within, Nimba and the other women gazed upon and even stranger sight. In her life, Nimba had never seen a building grander than the ceremonial hut in the center of the village. It was made of wood, leaves, and straw. It was also enormous and circular. It was very beautiful, in its own way, but the interior of this building demonstrated beauty of a different kind.
There was more black and white marble, more columns, more intricate patterning. Those were the walls. On the floors of the room, there were a number of low tables flanked by chairs and couches of all manner of length. On these couches sat and lay men, oddly-dressed creatures who smoked pipes and drank liquids out of bottles and glasses set upon the tables. It was in an uproar, the men shouting at each other and grabbing at the half-naked women who served them their drinks and the black waxy substance they stuffed into their pipes.
Towards the far side of the room was a long countertop, behind which stood a woman whose skin was as white as the tusk of an elephant. As wrinkled as Nimba’s grandmother and with hair a shade of red that could not have possibly been the result of nature’s ministrations, she had a smile on her face as she looked at the new arrivals, a smile that drooped into an expression of non-chalance when she registered who they were.
“Ali,” she shouted in Thrain, a language just as alien to Nimba as the bizarre Erifracian that had assaulted her since that fateful night in the jungle. Barely turning back to the pair of doorframes that led into the building beyond, she added: “Yer new ones is ‘ere!”
Hanging from the lintels of the doors leading back were more beads, clearly what passed for a door in this strange building. In moments, a thin man with a mass of iridescent cloth sitting on his head and a black-fringed orange robe around his body came bounding through. On each of his fingers he bore a ring, all with a differently coloured jewel set into its top. He had an enormous smile on his face and his hands spread wide, but something about him immediately made Nimba’s skin crawl.
“Ah, ladies,” said the man named Ali, in perfect Atikan. “You may be thinking: what happened? Where am I? You may thank me later, as I rescued you from the savagery of Atika. You are at home, I say. The Black Mamba – she is your home.” Ali motioned to the woman behind the counter, who fetched up five glasses – exactly enough for the number of Atikan women standing quietly near the gaudily dressed man.
“Here,” he said, passing around the glasses after the red-headed lady filled them with the brown-coloured contents of a dark bottle. “In the Black Mamba, we give praise to Xenia, the goddess of hospitality. Please, drink.” Ali drained a sixth one that he had produced seemingly from nowhere. “Drink,” Ali said warningly, noticing that not a single one of the women had touched their glasses.
Nimba, in a fit of rage directed at the presumptuous fop, threw her glass to the ground.
“We will not drink,” she screamed. “Let us go home, you monster!”
“Ah, this one has fire,” said Ali, laughing a hollow laugh. He grabbed the bottle from next to the red-headed lady, who turned away after making brief eye contact with Nimba and shooting her a pained look.
Ali struck Nimba with his fist before she had a chance to open her mouth again. She fell to her knees. The rings cut her face and she felt hot liquid drip from her chin onto the white marble beneath her legs. Ali grabbed her roughly by the face.
“I will not have Xenia disrespected in this house, bitch,” said Ali, his eyes blazing down at her. He put the bottle to her lips. “I am not beyond making a sacrifice to the goddess, of the kind our ancestors made, before this fucking pacifist sissy Yaruz ruined the minds of my countrymen. The kind that might see a djinn spring from your corpse as a servant to me.” Nimba could not help but notice that his breath stank of bizarre herbs as he added, “Serve me in life, or serve me in death, girl. It matters not to me. Now, drink. Until I tell you to stop.”
Ali raised the bottom of the bottle and applied pressure. Mercifully, none of Nimba’s teeth were shattered, though her top gum was raked so badly that the bleeding did not stop for three days. The liquor tasted strongly of honey. Ali waited until she consumed the final drop.
“There,” Ali said, pulling the bottle from Nimba’s lips and gently caressing her face before resuming his spectacle of gaiety. Each of the other women had emptied their glass during Nimba’s first lesson in obedience. Ali noticed this and a serpent’s smile blossomed on his face.
“Xenia be praised!”