LIGHT WAS FADING; it dripped off the trees and trickled smoothly into the coarse dirt hidden by the leaves and the thick foliage of the forest; against this backdrop the members of Cressida’s division were able to arrive at the Shembe’s hut unnoticed. Cressida stood at the door, watching for the last ray of light to reveal the signal. She hushed a few warriors and stared off at the tiny watchtower on the horizon. As if choreographed, a twinkle of blue light appeared on the last remaining tower off in the distance. She nodded and opened the door slowly, her eyes watching the forest for movement.
“Quickly.” She hissed.
Each woman slipped inside one after another until Cressida was the last and, taking one final sweep of the forest she shut the door.
The first thing one would notice as they entered the Shembe’s hut was the musky smell of dirt and grass, masked by the scent of rotted meat. Animal corpses littered the floor near the walls with their skins parallel to them on the other side of the room. Small knickknacks and trinkets lay around a large black cauldron near the back and whisping out of the cauldron was a gentle length of purple smoke. Eight fist-sized emeralds surrounded the cauldron and their surfaces reflected the wicked masks that leered from the walls. Cressida never could look up into the faces carved onto the masks, for they were evil faces. She knew that to lock eyes with a demon mask was simply asking to be possessed by whatever demon was sealed inside of it.
Cressida knelt in the rows of her rank and looked up at the Shembe. It was not often that the Shembe called such meetings and the operations had to be executed with the utmost secrecy.
“May the spirit of the forest be with us this night,” she began, her face shrouded in mystery. “When the morn sun rises tomorrow, we will begin our assault.”
A gasp rushed over the division and every eye was fixed on the Shembe. Cressida felt a hand grip her wrist and she pulled her gaze away for a moment. Her eyes found the pale face of her friend, Adrienna. Her eyes flicked back quickly to the Shembe and she was the only one brave enough to speak… “Why?” She whispered softly.
The Shembe didn’t look up, instead, she directed her gaze to the cauldron. Her fingers felt the edge of the black cauldron; she gripped the edge of it and looked down at it’s murky, violet depths. “Yziba, the mountain wench has declared open war on the Reyachh…after her livestock went missing three moons ago, she has suspected us…the sacrifice today, only convinced her of such a crime. She wants a blood sacrifice of seven children by—”
Adrienna was the first to react, “She what!?” She rose swiftly and pushed her way through the group. “When have we ever complied with the disgusting demands of such an impudent, twisted witch?” She turned around. Her frosted blue eyes were icy and her pale skin—unlike the others in the village—glistened with sweat. She looked around wildly at the other girls, “This cannot be done. I will not see another child to be…”
“Adrienna, sit down.” The shembe sighed running her hand through her gaudily decorated hair. She closed her eyes and covered them with her hand, “Let an old woman finish…really…”
Adrienna opened her mouth to speak but she only choked out noises.
“Stop being so melodramatic.” The Shembe put her thumb and index finger together; somehow Adrienna’s mouth shut against her will. “Sit.” She repeated again. She flicked the air and turned back to the cauldron as Adrienna made her way back to her seat. “The Tigress will lead her warriors to the rear exit of Yziba’s fortress.” The Shembe ignored an almost audible shiver as it passed through the room and continued speaking, her voice monotonous and bored, “The Leopard will take her warriors to the front exit and offer a peace offering. Viper, take your warriors into the forest in case they retaliate and the Panther will take the remainder through the underground passage.” She looked at Cressida, “Can you do that, Cressa?”
Cressida nodded, “Yes, Shembe. Without hesitation.”
“Good. Tigress?” She called lazily.
“As you command.” She replied softly.
“Of course, Shembe.”
“And how about Viper? Are your warriors up to the task?
A general hiss returned from the corner where the seven vipers were seated. The vipers were a frightening lot; their faces were painted a pale off-white with green slits painted down their faces. The tattoos on their arms and bodies were strange, lucid and seemed to writhe and slither in reaction to their body movements. It was a magical effect.
“That is all. Meet in the village square in three hours.” The shembe said, before she slunk back into her dark corner to lie down on her make-shift cot.
“Cressa! Did you hear her demands?!” Adrienna nearly shouted as her lips were freed from their stilled moment. “Seven children of the Reyachh!! Can you believe it!? It’s not bad enough that she accused us of stealing such a thing, but she had to go and threaten the children; We don’t get many as it is, and the occasional child usually dies before they reach the third year of life, but now they want us sacrificing them like some animal? I cannot stand for this, I will not stand for it and I will never understand how the Shembe can be so calm about it! It’s like lady Yziba isn’t a threat at all!”
“You’d think her minotaur was bad enough, but not to mention the boa constrictors and the strange creatures that come…vomiting out of her swamp hole…and the strange toxins that she laces the darts with, why I don’t think even the whole Reyachh encampment could get inside that fortress, let alone ten of us with the others split up how in the world does she think we can do this?”
“Adrienna?” Cressida tried again.
“I don’t really want to die tomorrow morning Cressida. I want to travel the world, fight some soldiers; I want to find a man; I want to have a baby and I want to raise that child in the ways of the Reyachh. I’d do anything to have a baby that survived; You know I’d do anything Cressida and I don’t think we can do this alone but I suppose the Shembe knows best…hmm.”
“Adrienna…please.” Cressida’s eyes darkened, she raised a hand, exposing the back of it to her dear friend.
“Ugh! Adrienna, Adrienna, Adrienna! Why can’t a woman speak her mind for two minutes without someone trying to interrupt her!? Can someone answer that question!?” her last words were much louder than she’d intended. The room quieted instantly and she fidgeted uncomfortably.
“Are you ready to listen?” Cressida’s voice was low.
At last, she glanced to Cressa. “yes,” she replied reluctantly. Adrienna pulled at her unnatural golden hair nervously.
“Thank you.” Cressa said in exasperation. “We have a lot of planning to do…and not much Time. We leave in three hours, that only gives us two hours for planning and the third for a last minute rest before we go.” She motioned to a corner and they sloppily crept to the corner and sat, erect.
“What would you have me do?” Adrienna asked, distracted. She seemed to be engaged in her thoughts, imagining the gruesome battle to come. Cressa knew that despite her words, she would execute orders according to the plan.
“Viper will guard those who try to sneak up on us from behind, but that’s only if they don’t suspect us coming. The others will be our distraction and once they’ve engaged with Yziba’s men, we will creep in through the hole.”
The hole was a small crevasse in an area of rock that covered the cave where one could find corpses of the dead. Yziba turned it into her mass grave for the sacrifices. Shembe had Cressida’s legion (the four groups) examining her surrounding area for a secret entrance for months when at last the earth shook and rent the ceiling in two. It was a fond discovery they made that day. Since then it was known as the hole—because, that’s what it was…a very dark, putrid smelling hole. She did not truly wish to return there, but if she had to, for the sake of her people, she was willing to do it.
“And run along the passageway. Adrienna,” she said, looking over at her, “you are our best bowman, you will stay in the hind and pick off any one still hanging around. Sicard,” she pointed to another warrior, “You and Aeol and Uri will be our first line of defense. I shall be in the center with Blanche and Ell. The rest will watch Adrienna’s back. Any questions?”
“I have one.” Adrienna said softly, her eyes grew distant as she looked at the wall. “How many casualties do you estimate?” She stared off for a moment and sluggishly dragged her gaze toward Cressida. “The Shembe makes it sound so simple…when it’s really not.”
Cressida shivered for the fourth time during this meeting. “If we do our job right, there’s no reason more than one should die...” The panther warriors grew silent. A heavy weight rested in her chest. At least one or more of her soldiers was expected to die, who would it be this time? She looked up over her legion at the Leopards, the vipers and of course the Tigers. If all went according to plan, out thirty one warriors, only twenty three would survive. The odds were not in their favor, but they could easily win with the right strategy. “Who’s with me?” she asked softly.
No one spoke; not one warrior. The silence was deafening. When finally, in the most mournful little sigh a girl could ever muster, Adrienna lifted her delicate hand and placed it into the center. “I am.” She said. She stood and headed for the door. “I shall meet you in the town center. May the heavens shower you with strength, fellow warriors.”
Cressida nodded, Aeol and Sicard stood and accompanied her out of the hut. Tonight would be long and they had no time to use carelessly.