Summer’s warm rains had long since riven the earth, then dried again to dust. Three moons would wax and wane before the winter rivers swelled within their graveled banks.
Hot Tree had lived most of her adult life in Fire boma, the bamboowalled cluster of huts a day’s walk southeast of Great Sky. Now her hair was streaked with white, her brown skin deeply wrinkled, her breasts empty sacks. Years had cooled the fire in her dancing feet. She felt both hollow and heavy, and knew it would not be long before Father Mountain summoned her bones.
So much had changed in the past few moons.
For generations unknown the Ibandi had lived within the sheltering shadows of the mountains called Great Sky and Great Earth. The peaks were home to Father Mountain and Great Mother, whose timeless passion had birthed the world.
Three moons ago, Great Sky had exploded, the cataclysm wreathing the sky in stinking smoke and spewing rivers of boiling mud down its verdant slopes. Trees had been wrenched up by the roots, tumbling like dead brush. The Ibandi hunt chiefs had died. Some believed the god Himself had perished, but Hot Tree did not, though she well believed that the explosion was a sign of His displeasure with their wickedness.
Whatever the truth might be, a second disaster soon struck. From the south came the Mk*tk, brutal men who killed many and even stole three of the sacred dream dancers. The bloody war had almost undone the Ibandi.If Hot Tree’s daughter had not brought her here to Water boma, Tree did not know what might have become of her.
Much had changed since then. Sky Woman, the girl who had earned her name by climbing Great Sky, had fled north with half the tribe, accompanied by her lover, Frog Hopping, who had climbed Great Sky with her in search of wisdom. Some said he was a mighty hunter, but Tree had never been impressed by Frog. Both his elder brothers, greater providers by far, had died on the great mountain, but their widows, Ember and Flamingo, had traveled north with Frog.
Hot Tree inhaled deeply. The afternoon air reeked of burnt grass. She stood just outside the boma’s bamboo gate at the edge of the wide blackened zone singed every moon to deny hiding space to leopards. Beyond that dark space, grass grew knee- high, and beyond that the plain was broken by round and flat- topped trees and dusky scrub ranging out to a thinly ridged northern horizon. The air smelled of dust and burnt thornbush.
Her old eyes could just barely distinguish a hyena’s brownish- gray pelt, lurking a spear’s throw from the edge of the blackened zone.
Another four or five spear casts distant loped three giraffes, two adults and one calf half the height of its parents. Even as she watched, they dissolved into the shimmering air, much like the cloud creatures the strange boy Frog had so often babbled of.
Night Song approached from behind. Hot Tree would have known that tread among tens of others: Song’s rotten left knee caused her to drag that leg a bit. No hunter’s accident or thieving disease had caused this, only that great hyena, time itself.
“I wonder where they are?” she said, not realizing she had spoken aloud.
“Stillshadow?” Night Song’s hair had faded to gray stubble. At times it was difficult to see the nimble young dancer trapped within her twisted, heavy frame. Despite her age, Song’s voice was still honey, and her dark eyes brimmed with curiosity. Song was Hot Tree’s sister- in- law, an old and valued friend. “Gazelle? Sky Woman?”
“Yes. And Snake,” she said. “Sweet Snake. When he was young, and I was not yet old . . .” Her smile was both bitter and sweet. Despite the intervening years, the memory remained a deep, swift ache.
“Do you wish you had gone with them?” Song asked.
Hot Tree sighed. “It is strange. Fire boma seemed so hollow. Then, I thought I was too old to go along. Now I fear I was not young enough to stay.” The old ways were shattered. If . . . if
the Ibandi could rebuild, that new world belonged to young skin, not old bones, even such sacred bones as Mother Stillshadow’s.
“Perhaps they will return,” Night Song ventured. “They will learn it is safe and come back to us.”
Hot Tree made a clucking sound. “And how will they learn that?”
“How will they see that it is safe? Are we to send runners? We do not know where they are.”
Song shivered. “I made a song,” she said. Many of their people forged habits that complemented their birth names. “I sing it to my daughters, and as I go to sleep . . .” She described it, sang a bit. It spoke of the old woman who had birthed so many of them, named most of them, and whose acolytes sung the sun to life each dawn. “Perhaps she will hear my song,” she concluded, “and they will return. . . .” Her voice trailed off, as if unable to convince even herself.
In the eyes of the Ibandi, Stillshadow was Great Mother incarnate. The old woman’s voice held the songs, her feet taught the dances. In former days she had walked the Circle once a year, bringing medicines and knowledge, knitting Earth, Wind, Fire and Water bomas together. She healed, dreamed names for their children and in the ripeness of time brought talented girl children into the ranks of the dream dancers.
Hot Tree cupped a handful of soil in her hands. “Things are not as they were before Great Sky died.” The earth trickled out between her fingers. “Heaven and earth are far apart. It is said that in the last days, old bones will dance again. Boar Tracks says the hunters have seen . . . things
on Great Sky.”
Night Song asked, “What manner of things?”
“Thorn Cloud told me that a ghost roams the slopes.” Once, such a thing would have been unthinkable. But that was another time, before so much death and fear. Before the shape of the world had changed. Surely, power great enough to reshape a mountain could split the thorn walls separating life and death. “Perhaps it is a hunt chief ’s spirit.”
“Then heaven’s gates have opened,” Night Song said.
The air seemed to take on a deeper chill. If heaven’s walls were breeched, might not hell’s gape as well? Good men went to Great Sky. But beneath the earth, locked behind Great Mother’s protective arms, demons raged, devouring the souls of evil men. Chapter Two
Through tufted grass, across soil not much richer than sand, a hand of Ibandi walked single file toward the horizon. Far to their left, the sun was dying.
Three walked with the grace and confidence of hunters. Leopard Eye and Leopard Paw were tall, lean young men who shared the same face, twins who had been raised together in Water boma. The third, Rock Knife, had come to manhood in Earth boma. The Leopard twins were the only surviving sons of Stillshadow, the head dream dancer. For two moons they had been their mother’s primary guardians. Walking by her side was Sky Woman, the girl some still called T’Cori–a name that was actually no name at all. The root word, Kori,
meant a void, an empty space.
The old woman called Stillshadow leaned upon a bamboo spear haft and stepped as if her hips were as fragile as eggshells. She raised her withered hand, a sign for stillness and silence. She squatted, her dusty heels raised high. Stillshadow stirred around in the dirt with her fingertips, and closed her eyes.
For many breaths the three hunters watched the dream dancer. They slowed their breathing, pulling it down to their stones to cool their impatient blood. At long last, the gray- hair stirred from her trance.
“What did you see?” Leopard Eye asked. His hands were knobby, his mouth broad and smiling even in repose. Quick to laughter and slow to rage, he was generally thought the best hunter of the men who had followed Frog Hopping and Great Sky Woman on their trek north. Most of them were now to the northeast, traveling toward their next resting place.
Stillshadow, Sky Woman and their escorts had gone to the west, seeking visions. They would catch up with their people tomorrow night perhaps. Or the day after. The walking families would find a camping ground, then wait for them. Two tens of tens of families left a very clear trail.
Neither brother had been raised by their flesh mother or father. As with all dancers’ male offspring, they had been raised by Stillshadow’s cousins and siblings.
“What do you see?” echoed Rock Knife, shortest of the three.
“Thirst,” Stillshadow groaned, eyes still closed tightly.
“You see what I feel.” Leopard Paw scratched his side, plucking out a little purple itch- thorn between the thick nails of his thumb and first finger.
“Is there water? Plants to draw the leaf- eaters? My belly wants meat.” He slapped his stomach. For the last two moons they had traveled endlessly, never spending more than a few days in any one place. Stillshadow said the ancestors demanded this sacrifice in exchange for future happiness.
“Quiet, now.” T’Cori sniffed the air. She stood, spread her arms wide and turned in a slow circle. Her eyes, ears and nose absorbed hands of hands of scents and sights and sounds. The breeze swam with mint and fire cactus. Click beetles mated in the tall grass, burring with pleasure as their love made new life. The air chilled as clouds shaded the sun.
T’Cori crouched on her hands and knees, hovering in trance, a gift of the plant children and her endless years of breath control, prayer and sacred dance. With their help, she could see through the world of men into that of dream, and perhaps even into the jowk
Her gaze shifted to her mentor, lost in her own visions. Her num,
the field of living light surrounding Stillshadow’s body, flared. For one brief moment it seemed bright and clear enough to transform night into day.
“There,” the old woman said at last, pointing to the east. “I will find my answer there.”
They walked a time, until after a quarter- day they heard hiccoughs of baboon laughter floating through the yellow grass. Stillshadow stood, one hand pressed to the small of her back. Her face flattened with pain but then regained a dignified calm as she walked toward the chuckles.
“Careful!” Leopard Eye called. “There is much danger.”
“For you, my son. But then,” she reminded him, “baboons do not like leopards.”
T’Cori shook her head. “Mother . . .”
The great dreamer grinned. “It will be good. Look.” Stillshadow knelt and brushed the earth with her fingertips. The soil was torn, speckled with blood and bits of bone. “Something bad happened here. What do you see?”
“I don’t know. . . .”
“This is not a knowing
thing,” the old woman replied. “It is a thing to see.
T’Cori closed her eyes. Freed from vision, her mind caught memories like fish in a net. At such times it seemed that she could touch yesterday, and the yesterdays before that.
And then she saw. The baboon troop had spent a long, lazy day eating dates and lean dry- season grasshoppers. As the wind shifted, three brown- backed males at the outskirts caught a strong sour meat- eater scent. They growled and barked. The rest of the troop crouched low, submitting to them completely. The females grabbed their young and fled to the circle’s center. The younger bucks gathered around the females and their pups and bared their teeth, snarling.
The leopard’s belly had sharp teeth. The rains had not fallen in moons, and as the water holes dried, the flesh she so desperately needed had wandered far. The two or three big bucks moved around the outer edge of the troop, pacing back and forth, eyes fixed on the starving cat. The troop did not panic or run away. In other days, the leopard might have avoided baboons, but this was not one of those days. Baboon was juicy and delicious. Emboldened by hunger the leopard was at the height of her strength and power and aggression. She advanced. The three big bucks, followed by several younger shaggy brown males, scrambled to meet her.
T’Cori blinked as she finished her dream of torn branches, footprints, and bloody soil. “I have seen this before,” she said. “Baboons are smaller than leopards, but . . . they are many and the leopard is only one. They come from all directions. Look! Only scratched earth and blood remain. Just scraps of bone and fur, flung in all directions. Baboons frighten me. No other monkey acts so.”
Stillshadow stood ten paces from the troop’s edge, not close enough to alarm them. Three males shambled toward her. The old woman stood as motionless as a tree, even when the apes bared their fangs and barked in chorus. She closed her eyes.
The baboons circled her, barked a few more times and then retreated. The troop watched her as she opened her eyes and backed away, watching them the entire time.
“Mother,” T’Cori said when the old woman returned. “Did they . . . speak to you?” The four- legged made signs any hunter could read. But speech? This would be marvelous beyond even Frog’s imagination. “I heard them,” Stillshadow replied. “There is game and water–” she pointed north “–beyond the horizon. There. Now come. We will find our people.” From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Shadow Valley by Steven Barnes. Copyright © 2009 by Steven Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.